Shauni sits demurely like a Bride-to-be should, with downcast eyes and a shy smile. She is only fourteen, the perfect age for daughters to be yoked off in marriage to middle aged, paunchy men. Shauni is lucky though. Her groom, Dalmu is only twenty eight and unmarried and still virile.
The firstborn of three sons and two daughters, he had waited until all his siblings were married off. It was a promise he had made to his dying father twelve years ago. Being of the fishermen caste, it was difficult for Dalmu to find proper matches for his sisters, but he finally succeeded in getting a family in the neighboring village and had married them off to two brothers. The Dowry given to the sisters was compensated by the dowries received from his brother’s wives. Now since his responsibilities were over and the mother was getting older, Dalmu agreed to finally get himself a wife. Shauni was beautiful, young and what was more, she was bringing with her a decent dowry. Her father had taken a loan from the money lender at a large interest rate for two years and bought a cycle for Dalmu. This was other than the customary items given by a bride, which included clothes, puja items, vessels etc His mother had already discussed this with Shauni’s family and only when satisfied with the list of items, agreed to the match.
Tonight seeing his daughter being turned into a bride, Shauni’s father sighs contentedly. It feels as if a heavy burden has been lifted from his shoulders. Luckily he has two sons to go and no more daughters. He knows he is lucky enough to have escaped with only one daughter being born. Otherwise his life would have been spent just paying off their dowries. The blood mixed in his betel juice does not worry him tonight.
Under the influence of the arrack, the world seems brighter and colorful.
The wedding takes place the next day morning.
Accompanied to the beat of dholaks, jhillaks and chham-chhams, the groom leads the procession on a bullock cart. This year’s famine has made the bullock’s rib poke out a little, but it walks chewing on the cud, with very little prodding, oblivious to the noise around it. A make-shift mandap has been erected out of a wooden platform and plastic sheets decorated with flowers. Shauni sits wearing her red wedding sari in the traditional Koli style and gold and imitation jewellery. The cheap gold shine of the jewellery, offset against the fierce red sari and her dark complexion is liked by the women and they murmur amongst themselves’ How beautiful the girl is’. Soon the bride is given away by the father, garlands exchanged and the customary feast ensues. The yard has been layered with cow dung, and spaces are allotted to the groom’s family. A mad dash to catch a place in the seating area’ causes panic among Shauni’s family and they try to placate everyone. Soon the revelers calm down and everyone starts gobbling up the chicken curry, rice, pickles and papads. Behind the hut, women cook more rice, more curry, fry more papads and dole them out in steel buckets to the waiting attendants serving food. Sweets are guarded strictly and given only to the groom and bride and the groom’s immediate family. Others who don’t get the sweets stare at them until even the last bit stuck to the moustache or beard or cheek of the eater is licked away.
After the food is eaten, and after the cycle and other dowry items are presented to Dalmu’s mother, Shauni is seated on the bullock cart and taken to her husband’s village. In the hot fierce sun, the Nycil powder on her face mixes with the tears and trickles down in white streaks. Her mother weeps copiously while her father looks on with moist eyes. He waits there until the procession merges with the Horizon.
At her husband’s house, her ‘co-sisters’ and sisters-in-law, at the door apply tikka to her forehead and break a coconut. They pour some alta into a plate and Shauni dips her hands into it and imprints her palm on the wall next to the front door. Her mother in law guides her hand to the space above the palm imprints of the Manhjli bahu and Chhoti bahu. ‘You are my Badi bahu, and above them’ she whispers into Shauni’s ears. She is then made to step into the 'alta' and enter the house, leaving red footsteps behind her. They take her to one of the five rooms in the mud house, and seat her on the embroidered bedspread which smell of mothballs. ‘This room will serve as your bridal chamber tonight’ her youngest sister-in-law tells her. The ‘Muh Dikhai’ ceremony lasts until late evening. Scores of women from the village have come to see her and the Dowry items are laid on the floor. ‘Wah, wah, she will bring luck to you. You can see it in her face. Saakshat Laksmi’ they say when they lift the veil, while her mother-in-law looks on proudly.
Outside, the men tease Dalmu. His brothers and friends wheedle money out of him and buy liquor. Slowly the visitors start leaving. Not sure of what to do, Shauni stays put in the same room until Malati and Chutki bring her supper. Two rotis, rice, dal and curry. They tell her about the house members, about their habits and general daily schedule. After some time, Dalmu is pushed into the room by his friends and brothers. They cheer him on, while the sisters wink at Shauni and leave.
The door is bolted from outside and Dalmu turns towards her. He takes off his shirt.
It has been two months after the wedding. Shauni has synchronized her body and mind to that of her in-laws’. She wakes up at 5, sweeps, mops, washes, cooks. Until the men return home late evening for dinner. Petty squabbles have started, but on the whole her husband’s family is better than most in the village. Maybe the dowry appeased them. Shauni has discovered she is pregnant. Her mother-in-law has had her examined by the Hakim and though his proddings were quite unpleasant (she never understood why he had to slip his fingers inside her to find out if she was pregnant or not), she basks in the new found discovery. Her mother in law makes ‘kheer’ and announces the news to the household. Dalmu catches it just when he is about to leave the house for the day.
In his excitement he bumps into the door, while a veiled Shauni giggles.
Today, Dalmu is a little worried, notwithstanding the good news he has heard from his mother. One more addition to the family, means another mouth to feed. He has to venture deeper and farther into the sea for his catch. And then too there is no guarantee that he would be successful.
‘Let us split today, Dalmu advises his brothers. ‘But Bhai, we have only two boats!’ the younger brother blurts. He is a little scared of the sea and hence does not go out alone.
‘Allright Somu, how long will you be scared, You and Rovai, go in the bigger boat, I will go in the smaller.’
There is no way; we can catch anything if we search in the same place. Let us meet here before dusk sets in.’ Dalmu gets into the smaller boat and pushes off to the west, while his brothers stay back to drink some tea.
‘Be careful, have heard the sea is a little rough that side. There are a lot of whirlpools too..’ The tea vendor shouts.
‘Will take care’ Dalmu replies with a wave and shrug.
Soon it is time to return. The sun starts packing up and tells the clouds to go away. They disperse reluctantly, making faces. Dalmu turns the boat towards what he assumes is the general direction where the land lies. The boat bobs on the sea like an abandoned cork cap. Like a puppet on a string. The small brass bell on a red ribbon that Dalmu has tied to the oar tinkles merrily. It is Shauni who had made it. ‘This charm will ensure you are never separated from me’ she had breathed into his ear’. For a while Dalmu loses himself in his bride’s thoughts. It is only after a long time, when even with the continuous rowing, Dalmu does not see any sign of a land, that he panics. He rows the boat furiously, coaxing it towards his assumed direction. The minutes pass slowly, Dalmu’s heart now sounds like a booming cannon.
Then he sees it.
Like spider webbing, it sucks in all twigs, bogs, cloths, branches, abandoned slippers into its vortex. Dalmu has heard of it from the old Jhoran on one of their drinking nights. But has never seen one. Now he does and he is scared. His boat lurches violently. He tries to pull it back, rowing furiously.
But it is too late.
The boat is caught in the whirlpool.
Dalmu jumps out, praying and screaming to the Gods in the skies. He thinks of his unborn son, his pretty young wife. His mother, father, sisters, brothers and his friends. He prays forgiveness for the sins he has done and tries to bribe the deities he worships. He tries to swim but is caught in the rapid turning hole. Images flashe in his mind. His mother calling out to him as a child. Sitting atop his father’s shoulder’s on the way back from a fair. The vivid yellow of his wedding dhoti. Shauni’s brown eyes. The minutes pass by slowly. Hours have dragged into days, days into months, months into years. For a thousand years, Dalmu’s weightless body turns and twirls with the whirlpool’s movement. The boat is not to the monster’s taste so it is flung out. But Dalmu’s body is, and it disappears into the black pit.
There is no sign of anything, and the sea is as calm as ever.
It is late evening when the sun is about to set that the brothers come looking for him. Their shouts go unanswered, though they can see the boat from a distance. It has left the whirlpool behind and is now nearer to the shore. The brothers do not see any fisherman on it and fear the worst. ‘No he must be asleep’ Rovai stammers n a false voice.
They look around and then into each other’s eyes. They know it is fruitless to stand there and search.
It is a part of their lives. A missing fisherman is a dead fisherman.
Somu climbs into the abandoned boat and they start towards the shore, rowing with no expression on their faces.
Shauni stares at the floor. She has not cried nor asked anything. Ever since the brothers came home she has sat there staring at the floor, unblinking. The women wail around her. Dalmu’s mother beats her chest and tears her hair. In their grief, no one notices their askew veils or saris or blouses revealing skin. Other women from the neighborhood also beat their chests and cry aloud for some time and then proceed to the kitchen to ready the food for the mourners. The men are outside.
It is just like the wedding day, except now the men are talking about their near-death experiences or recounting somber tales of men who have died in the past. Even the children seem affected as they sit silently and stare at their weeping mothers or grim fathers. Shauni is now ‘officially’ to be made a widow. She hears nothing, sees nothing, except the pattern on the floor. The whole room is a blur. She only feels a throbbing pain in her head, which refuses to go away. The oldest of the women bangs Shauni’s hands against the wall and breaks her bangles. Red angry slashes of blood appear on her wrists. She flinches. The sindoor is wiped off. Vigorously so as not to leave any marks. Her veil is pulled off. The old hag takes the scissors and snips off Shauni’s long tresses. Snip Snip. Hair falls in clumps. Black clumps against brown baked mud. The old hag peers at Shauni’s scalp and spits on the blade. She then wipes it. Satisfied that it is clean, she proceeds to shave Shauni’s head. It is a nice shaped head. Looks better without the hair. Nice and smooth and shiny. Maybe not smooth. Nicks and cuts mar the surface and bear testimony to the old hag’s unsteady hands.
Black clumps against a green sari, against a yellow blouse, against a white petticoat.
Black clumps snake their way on a dark brown slender back.
Now the black clumps lie against a white sari.
The shaved head is hidden under a tightly tied pallu. Dalmu’s mother runs to her. All this time her grief had overtaken her anger. But now she spits out venom as she half-drags Shauni towards the door ‘He got married to you and you have eaten him up. You have killed my son. Get lost, you whore. What bad luck you brought to me, you shit-eater.’ The women pry her hands away from Shauni’s throat. Her slaps and beatings jolt Shauni out of shock. She rocks back and forth on her feet. Limp against the wall, while her mother in law rains down blows upon blows.
She sits there feeling only a terrible yearning. That somehow she is responsible for things having gone wrong. For having caused Dalmu’s death. She suffocates under a black cloud of despair. She thinks of the life inside her. The tiny life that Dalmu so wanted to see grow. While the women are busy pacifying and consoling Dalmu’s mother, Shauni walks out into the darkness. The sky has shaken the night out of its cloak. It scatters and settles on the trees, walls, houses gathering up armies of shadows to march against the morning light. Her white clothes make her look like a ghost from afar. She smells the cloying scent of the sea.
As if hypnotized, she walks, totters, stumbles towards it. She hears the waves flinging angry cuss words against the rocks. She hears them call out to her. She feels the wet sand and then the wet waters first on her feet and then her ankles until she is knee-deep in water. From afar she hears Dalmu call out to her.
There he is, to her right, his boat sail marking a white triangle against the eternal blackness. ‘Come here, what are you standing there and staring at?’ He asks, just like he did on their wedding night. Shyly, she walks to him.
But he seems farther and farther away. The water is now upto her waist, but Shauni feels nothing. ‘Wait,’ she calls out to him. But he is too far away to hear. She reaches the boat.
The water is now inside her head and nose and lungs and mouth. It swishes around her petite body, hissing like a great serpent. Her sari comes undone. It makes a long tail of white in the black sea. ‘Dalmu, take my hand’ she whispers hoarsely just before she steps into the boat.
It is old Jhoran who fishes out her body.
Bloated, Black and Swollen grotesquely after four days, the sea has spat it out onto the shore.
‘Suicide it is’ the onlookers whisper. ‘No, Murder’ say some. ‘See how black her feet have become!’ points out one, while another cries ’See her skin is peeling off!’ The police are called. ‘Suicide’ they rule and go away. The gatherers disperse.
As Dalmu’s brothers and Shauni’s father carry the body home, a small brass bell tied onto a red ribbon falls out into the sand unnoticed…