By: Mehreen Ahmed
Not realising how fast time passed, Minah and Sidu, reached puberty more or less together. Short for Siddhartha, Sidu was Minah’s best friend. Their favourite pastime was hanging out in their old haunt, the mango grove by the village pond. Here, they laughed, skipped around, climbed trees, larked about, and danced insanely with the accompaniment of flute.
This bonding of togetherness sealed itself with the promise that they would always be there for each other; not knowing, however, that in the cosmic scheme, they had already been set apart for their inherent beliefs, and gender. For Minah was a girl and Sidu, a boy. While Minah’s Muslim family had great wealth, Sidu’s family was orthodox Brahmins of the highest caste. Any misgivings, in those days, like feathers in a storm, were swept away in the favourable winds of innocence of carefree joys. Fatalistic or not, changes did occur, emerging incognito.
One day, Sidu waited for Minah in their hang out. She arrived late. By now, Minah had turned eighteen and Sidu twenty. When she showed up, Sidu scrutinised her from head to toe. Something was wrong, he thought. “About time, you took forever to get here today, didn’t you?” he asked her, “And, why are you dressed like that? You look, hmm, different.”
“Why? Because, people came to see me today.”
She sat down on a grassy patch under the mango tree near Sidu.
“Who? Who came to see you?”
“How would I know? I guess, I am to be married soon.”
“And, when did you buy this sari? You never told me.”
“No, amma bought it, what do you think of the colour?” Minah asked him.
“It’s nice, nice, just that — that, I’m not used to seeing you in a sari. By the way, that red, it really suits you. When’s the occasion?”
“I don’t know, silly,” she blushed.
“You look pretty, like a grown woman.”
Minah stood up and pulled him up by the hand.
“Come, let’s do something.”
“You could wear this for the Durga Puja though, couldn’t you? I could buy you matching bangles. Do you think you might be married off by then?” He rambled on, walking the mango grove, holding hands, unaware of the time that was soon going to be out of joint. Something suddenly dropped from the trees above. It landed with a thud on the dirt road before their feet.
“It’s a bird’s egg. We need to put it back,” Sidu said. A couple of cuckoo birds nested in one of the mango trees. He picked it up, but the nest being too high, he needed Minah’s help.
“I’ll put it back. I’m sure, I’d be able to reach the branch if I stood on your shoulders,” she said.
It seemed like a good plan. Minah, took the little egg from his hand. With her feet firmly pressed on Sidu’s shoulders, she stood up shakily and caught the broad branch over her head. While she set the egg gently back into the nest, her sari buffered Sidu’s head against the woody trunk. He looked up. No sooner was the job done, than she lost balance and they took a tumble together.
Incidentally, the highly respected school pundit, and Sidu’s father Mr. Mukherjee was passing by. Being out of school since graduation, it had slipped Sidu’s mind that it was lunchtime and dad would come home for lunch break. Mr. Mukherjee was also Minah’s teacher at school. He looked at them quizzically through his old-fashioned, rimless, round glasses. Arranging their disheveled clothes, they stood up awkwardly. Minah’s sari was now well up above her knees, which she desperately pulled down to her ankles. The pundit expressed concern. He ran down the dirt path onto the low land of the pond, to give them both a hand.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“We’re fine,” Sidu said.
“We just fell down.”
“Oh, I can see that,” he said, and then laughed.
“You’re going to be married soon, my dear. It’s not good to be seen out with him anymore,” he said to Minah.
“What of it?” Minah hissed.
The pundit was taken aback at her retort. Raising an eyebrow, he invited them to join him for lunch.
Sidu lived with his mother, father and a younger sister, Moushumi, in a small, two-bedroom brick house close to the mango grove. They ate out in the front verandah. Seeing them approach, Monjushree, Sidu’s mother rolled out a mat on the floor. A vaporous pot of hot rice boiled on a kerosene stove at the far end. She had just finished stirring the rice with a wooden spoon, when they stepped onto the verandah. She put the lid back on the pot and put the spoon away.
“Hello Minah, how are you, love?” she asked. “Why? How lucky are we today? Our guest is a bride-to-be,” she smiled.
“Umm. What have you been cookin` mashima?”
“A blushing bride already, eh? All your favourite dishes dear, fried Hilsa, Daal, and fried potatoes in tomato sauce.”
“Yummy,” Minah chuckled.
“Sidu help Minah wash her hands. Lunch is ready.”
Mrs. Mukherjee laid down five copper plates and glasses on the mat, while Sidu poured a mug full of water down her hands from a bucket, placed midway along the open verandah. Minah’s interlocked hands touched his. On the mat afterwards, Sidu sat with his legs crossed into each other in yoga position between Minah and his sister Moushumi. Mr. and Mrs. Mukherjee, sat opposite to them.
Minah’s father was one of the village’s wealthiest rice farmers, who owned much of fertile land. He sold rice to the big superstores and village markets around the country. This gave him a powerful station in the hierarchical social order. Her home just next door, a two-storied rendered, brick house with a large balcony was secured behind a gated wall. In the balcony, hurricane lanterns hung from a curved iron dowel on a horizontal cane pole. Minah lit them every evening; the balcony glowed under the lantern lights of imparted paleness.
Mr. Mukherjee served Minah spoonfuls of rice this afternoon. Minah laughed saying that she could not eat anymore, but that did not deter him.
“We have to get you something nice for the wedding, don’t we?” Mrs. Mukherjee said.
She turned her gaze away from Minah to scan Mr. Mukherjee’s placid face. The pundit smiled at her ruefully. It had not escaped their eyes that whenever the “w” word was spoken, Sidu moved his fingers either too fast through the rice or gulped water so hurriedly that he nearly choked.
“Go easy on the fish. Don’t forget it is Hilsa. Those razor-sharp bones could cause havoc if they were to get caught up in your throat, Sidu,” the pundit cautioned.
“Yes, if we could only change the subject,” Sidu answered, chewing a mouthful of rice. “I don’t think Minah wants to talk about her wedding plans right now.”
He threw a cursory side glance at her, to which she lowered her head even further.
“I haven’t seen your amma lately,” said Mrs. Mukherjee.
“Haven’t you? She did mention you last night, said she’d drop in soon, if not today, then tomorrow perhaps?” she said.
“Yeah, she probably would.”
“Minah, are you going to move out, once you’re married?” Moushumi asked.
“Most likely,” said the pundit.
There was no getting away from this topic, Sidu regretted. He washed his soiled hand on his plate. He took his drinking glass and poured some water out over his hand on the half-eaten food. Then he stood up, and left his plate right there on the mat to everybody’s uneasiness.
Lunch was over soon after that. Mrs. Mukherjee collected the plates and took them out to the well in the front yard to do the dishes. While she scraped Sidu’s plate for the tired, malnourished dog at their doorstep, Sidu took Minah home. Minah said good-bye to everyone and squeezed Moushumi’s chubby cheeks before she departed. Not participating in the good-bye ceremony, the pundit stepped inside; for he gauged disaster lurk in the folds of life’s many complexities.
Sidu and Minah, were at the gates of her big house. Minah’s mother, Mrs. Ruby Rahman stood on the balcony upstairs, looking at them. When Sidu saw her, he conjoined hands to greet her nomoskar. She reciprocated by nodding with a smile. Sidu left Minah at the gates. Minah ran up the stairs.
Mrs. Rahman sat erectly on an easy chair made of cane She leaned forward to pick up the knitting from the basket by her side. Minah came around to stand by the railing of the balcony, “I’ve already had lunch at mashima’s,” she declared.
“Yeah, I figured that. What did you have at your aunty’s?”
“Oh, the usual, but it was tasty.”
“How’s she? Haven’t seen her in a while.”
“ Cheerful, as always,” Minah said.
“Yeah, well, now that you’re about to get married, you need to stay home. The jeweller will come this afternoon to take orders. I want you to be here with me; don’t just take off.”
The lady of the house, Mrs. Ruby Rahman, was a woman of few words, but she was usually clear on what she wanted. Despite all her wealth, she was a plain looking character who seldom interfered into other people’s affairs.
“The matchmaker was here a little while ago. A wedding date has been fixed.”
She sounded final. Almost to the effect that they were carved in stone. But, Minah’s mind was racing, who was he? What did he do for a living? Where would they live? Questions raged, one too many, that she was too afraid to ask. This whole affair was daunting. She continued to look ahead at the rice fields, while her heart madly pounded away. A maid beckoned Mrs. Rahman to come inside. The fish seller, the vendor, had come to collect his money.
Minah gazed at the tall, green grass swaying in the late autumnal winds. She visualised an uncertain future, bleak with apprehensions. Her thin, determined lips looked sallow without lipstick on an expressionless fair, small face; her untidy, curly hair brushed against her cheeks in the passing afternoon breeze. She had not realised that the sun had dipped into the blushing western sky, a blush that matched hers. It was time to light the lanterns.
She bent down to pick up the matchbox, stashed in a blind corner behind a balcony pillar. She pushed the glass cover off the bracket of the first lantern at an angle to get to the wick underneath. Then she lit it with a strike of a match stick to the box. All of a sudden, she became aware. That there was an audience. She began to light the lanterns, one after another. When she came to the last, she turned around to look at her neighbour’s house. She saw Sidu. She locked her gaze into his. Smiling wanly, she extricated herself from the mesmerising magic. Then she left.
The wedding preparations well under way, Minah heard people come and go downstairs every day. More maids and pageboys were employed. Relatives came from far afar to stay with them. As soon as the jewellers left, tailors came in to take measurements. There were endless supplies of Sweets, Shingaras, and Pithas; oodles of lunches and dinners. The spread consisted of many items of fish, meat, and vegetables. Men mostly ate downstairs and women upstairs. The house smelled of curry for days on end. Minah saw Mrs. Mukherjee one day, but was not sure if Sidu also came. She did not go out anymore, but saw his dark, eager looks from the other side of the fence on lantern lighting evenings.
A few days before the wedding, Minah heard noises coming from Sidu’s house. She looked through the window. There was a cry. Sidu stalked out of the house, followed by Mrs. Mukherjee’s frantic appeals. Minah was curious. In the evening, when her parents chatted in the main bedroom, she slipped out of the house. She heard faded conversations from her parent’s bedroom but she ran down the stairs, across the hall, into the yard, and out of the gate.
Moushumi sat dourly, on the verandah steps. Minah pushed herself in through their cane-fenced door.
“Moushumi, what has happened here?” Minah asked.
Moushumi hesitated, while Minah looked at her in a silent query.
“It’s Sidu,” Moushumi said.
“He asked baba, if he could marry you.”
“What? And, then?”
“Baba said no, something to do with our faith.”
Neither of them realised though that Sidu’s parents appeared on the scene and overheard them whisper. The pundit asked Minah to come into the lounge room. He ushered her inside. They sat on short bamboo stools facing each other. While Mrs. Mukherjee and Moushumi hovered in the doorway, unbearable silence thickened the air.
“And, we love you very much,” he was saying. “But, I am bound by the tenets of our religion. I can’t permit Sidu to marry you. Please forgive me, we would become ostracised; no one would marry Moushumi. We can’t beat the odds; the stakes’ too high. I wish we were born in another world, another era.”
Through the dim obscurity, rendered by a wick lantern on the edge of the verandah, Minah saw his dark scowl, the stress marks, on his narrow forehead. His voice trailed off. She looked around and saw a big pile of fat books on a corner table of the room. She felt dejected that there was no place for her, and Sidu in them.
“I must go then, mustn’t I?” she asked.
“Yes, you must,” he paused. “I’ll pray for your happiness, always. I wish you only the best. May, Bhagwan bless you dear child.”
She muttered adieu somehow, then flitted out of the room. She entered into hers the same way she came out; nobody noticed.
Moments passed, but Minah could not sleep that night. Lying awake, she listened to the creaky noises in the wooden window shutters. She heard them slam in the hollow winds. She kept her ears open, even craned her neck to check if Sidu was in. Apart from the murmur of dry leaves of autumn there was nothing; nothing to console her fretful soul, there was not even a shadow under the full, yellow moon of that night.
The last few days, she seemed to care more for Sidu. Her days filled with tremors, quivers; she craved his company, his touch. They gazed at each other over the fence on evenings, while the unspoken words burned in the kindled fires within.
Is this love?’ she asked herself. ‘I must. Oh, I must, meet him at least once, this will be the last, I promise. I promise.
The next morning, a maid entered her room. Minah wasn’t there. The maid thought she may have gone out for a walk, but this early? “ Sister Minah, sister Minah, where’re you?” she called out. But she was nowhere in her room. Her cries steadily assumed a nervous pitch, which aroused everyone in the house to the knowledge that Minah had gone missing.
Not fully awake yet, Mr. Rahman’s squinted his eyes. He got out of bed yawning, and went to the balcony, but saw nothing. Servants were sent all around to look for her. This stirred up the entire village, including Sidu and his parents. When he heard, Sidu took off in a flash. He knew exactly where to find her. And, he did. In a moment, he carried Minah back through the gates of the big house.
They met a clearly distressed Ruby Rahman at the entrance.“Where did you find her?” she asked.
Sidu staggered, then moved towards her room. He laid her down on the bed. Mr. Rahman quickly sent a pageboy to scurry along the jagged dirt paths to find a doctor.
“Under the mango tree by the pond, but she’s okay,” Sidu gasped.
When the doctor arrived, he asked everyone else, apart from Ruby Rahman, to leave the room. He turned Minah over and found a tiny bit of blood clot on the back of her head. There was a fracture. In the thick of it, Minah woke up too, all disoriented.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“That’s what we’d also like to know. How? Why?”
Ruby’s bitter tirades shook Minah, but she took them on the chin. Afterwards the doctor sat with them in the balcony. He told Mr. and Mrs. Rahman, over a cup of tea that Minah had been sleepwalking. Most likely, she fell and injured herself on the knotty tree-roots.
“Could she have gone anywhere?” Mr. Rahman enquired.
“It’s possible,” the doctor replied.
Mr. and Mrs. Rahman sat on the two upright chairs, thinking how this might affect the wedding. In the meantime, one of the pageboys burst in holding a lantern in his hand.
“What is it?” Mrs. Ruby Rahman cried.
“I found this by the pond.”
Ruby looked up and saw an empty spot on the cane pole that held all the lanterns together.
The boy hung it back and left. The doctor left too. But by now, the entire village knew that she had slept under the mango tree and that Sidu brought her home. This gave rise to all kinds of speculations. This was just what the gossip required. The maids and housewives talked at every corner, in the market, on the street, and in their homes. This was hot topic whenever people got together. Some said she was jinxed. Others thought she might be possessed. And, yet, some women questioned her honour. They whispered that Sidu and Minah might have actually spent the night together, or else how would he know where to find her?
The wedding now just ten days away, this shameful news travelled all the way to Minah’s would be in–law’s household. Barely three days passed, when the matchmaker was back at Mr. Rahman’s place. A servant opened the door, leading him through the hall into the balcony. Mr. Rahman greeted the matchmaker by touching his own forehead with the right hand, while Ruby quickly draped her head with the sari’s loose end, the Anchal. They welcomed him into the house.
“O-laikum-us-salaam,” he replied.
“Please have a seat,” said Mr. Rahman.
They sat down on high-backed chairs. Ruby excused herself. She sent out refreshments for the guest, which a pageboy carried on a tray. They were homemade cakes, Bhapa Pitha with tea. Mr. Rahman placed one such Pitha on a plate and offered it to the matchmaker.
“There have been issues lately,” he said. “It’s bothering many people.”
The viscous molasses oozed out of the coconut covering, at his first bite into the Pitha. The molasses drooled over a little on his lower lip, which he swiped off with his tongue.
“What do you mean?” Mr. Rahman asked.
“Well, they want to break up the wedding over this incident. They think Minah might be possessed.”
“Oh! No, no! She was only just sleepwalking.”
“Look, they don’t want to know this mumbo jumbo, okay. She needs to be exorcised and that’s that. There are no two ways about it. You would have to put a ritual in place to expel that devil from her head.”
“And, then? Then, would they rethink?”
“Yes,” he said briefly.
The slick mercenary studied Mr. Rahman’s sullen expression, pinching his prickly moustache on his nondescript, grubby face. He observed his keenness, which clued him in on a shrewd plan. He thought he had a potential bargaining position here, more money into his own coffers.
“They might, for a price. Pay me fifty-thousand cash, let me try and negotiate a deal with them.
“Fifty-thousand! But, that’s a lot of money, even for me,” Mr. Rahman said aloud raising his hands up in the air.
“And, I say, take it or leave it; there are other more pertinent issues as well.”
When Mr. Rahman, did not understand what other issues he referred to, the matchmaker continued to give him a shrewd smile thinking that it kept getting better and better. Then, he told him, “You know, what I mean? The gossip that surrounds Sidu and Minah.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll do it, but I’ll need more time. As soon as I have the money, I’ll let you know.”
“Let me know soon.” Saying so the matchmaker left. A servant saw him out.
Mr. Rahman sat mulling over this matter. He would be stigmatised and shamed if this wedding did not go ahead. No honourable boy would marry his daughter. That would be a great loss, which he couldn’t afford. For a respectable life in the village, he was prepared to make any sacrifices and concessions. If he had to sell land to raise money, so be it, get Minah exorcised, so be it, but the scandal, oh, the horror!
Minah hardly came out of her room now. She became forlorn, and began to wear this loneliness on her face, her eyes increasingly cheerless, vacuous. Everything took its toll on her health. She grew thinner by the day. Her appetite dissipated. Time seemed to have come to a halt, but it could not bring her furtive longings for Sidu to an end. Each day her affection for him grew more than ever. She felt an uncontrollable desire to meet him under the mango tree by the pond.
Minah planned to sneak out of her house yet again one dark, cool autumn night. On her way to the pond, she peered in the direction of Sidu’s verandah. Other than the slight radiance from the wick lantern ponding on the floor, there was nothing. Drawing nearer to the mango grove, the usual meeting place, she chanted his name, Sidu, Sidu. She knew Sidu would be there. In a moment, she saw a figure in white. She saw Sidu’s Dhoti and the top. Sidu saw her too, as well as heard the restless footsteps over the fallen autumn leaves. He extended his arms, and she ran straight into them. Minah was not sleepwalking tonight.
Sidu held Minah in a tight embrace. She rested her head shyly on his heaving chest.
“I missed you,” he said heavily.
“I missed you more.”
They stood in each other’s arms for an eternity. Sidu took Minah’s chin. She opened her eyes to meet his. In the moonlight, he tilted it with his index finger and pressed it close to his lips. They kissed. A touch at first, then the kisses became more and more insistent, the embrace tighter. Sidu held her by her waist; Minah held on to his shoulders. The world around them exploded. Sidu’s kisses were returned with warmth beyond compare. They sat down under the tree. Minah inclined on the stump for Sidu to caress her shoulders under her blouse. He gently touched the soft skin of her willowy arms, moved it down to the elbow and then back up to her lips. They made love and lay contented beside each other; an occasional owl hooted at a distance in the murky night. The mango tree, the lover’s den, witnessed it all.
“When’s the wedding?”
“Don’t know, don’t want to know,” Minah said with eyes still closed. “Say no more.”
“We shall meet, no matter what,” Sidu said.
“We’re already together. Do you not understand, Sidu?. I hurt, when we’re not together. I feel my heart inside me leap out at the very thought of you. Every beat of my pulse tells me that I want to be with you.”
Minah looked into the depths of his dark, troubled eyes, and saw them twinkle. It was a celestial union, which none of the world’s social or religious laws could have altered. They stood before heavens and chose each other as partners. The gentle sound of the azan shortly drifted through the silence of the night, proclaiming the Morning Prayer, the Fajr.
“I need to go,” Minah said.
Sidu grabbed her hand. “No. Don’t go. Not just yet. Stay, stay a bit,” he pleaded.
“I’ll come back tonight, same time,” Minah promised.
He let her go. But how could he? Oh, how could he let her go? His kept looking at her with love-sickness burning him. She headed down the narrow dirt road, disappearing into the tender night, breaking into a dawn. Its sporadic, dark patches visible in a pale sky. Back into the house, she locked the front gate and hung the key beside it on a nail, then darted up the few steps into the safety of her room.
Warily she went into the bathroom to take off her sweaty clothes. She took several mugs of water from a bucket set in the bathroom and poured it over her head. She changed into fresh clothes and dried her wet body with a red gamcha. She saw bloodstains on the sari. She hid it under the bed.
Mr. Rahman was able to sell some land eventually. But Minah did not need to get exorcized. She stopped sleepwalking for a while. A wedding date was fixed again and the wedding was due to take place within seven days, once the money was paid to the matchmaker. The deal had closed. Minah knew she had been taken as hostage to preserve the family honour. Therefore, she said nothing but went along with it. On the day of the wedding, she thought of only Sidu. She was sure that he would not be present among the large crowd of invitees.
Day before the wedding, they met again at midnight for the last time. Intertwined in spirit and in body, they knew that they were one; they knew in this great oneness, they would always communicate, even if they may not meet physically again.
Minah’s in-laws were another traditional family, lived about five miles away from her village. After the wedding ceremony, the plan was to take the train back. Minah was to be carried to the station on a decorative palanquin, contrary to the plain ones used by other female guests. The men would walk alongside the cavalcade.
On the day, after they wedded, a procession ensued towards the station. Minah looked out through the draped, palanquin window and saw Sidu. She thought, he appeared and disappeared over the horizon. When all the palanquins were parked on the platform at last, the groom carried her into an empty train cabin, who callously put her down on a window seat, then left without so much as a word.
She sat alone by the carriage window. One short moment, her life turned. Hours went by, she waited. She looked out occasionally in anticipation, not for the man she had just married, but for Sidu, the man she loved. She could not, rather would not, say goodbye to him. This was whom she desired and this was whom she wanted from the bottom of her heart. In desperation she cried out, “Sidu!”
It was nearly time to depart. Her in-laws saying last good byes on the platform. Serendipitous enough, Minah saw a man’s shape in the doorway, a vision blurred, and vaguely recognisable. Two strong arms seized her and took out of the carriage. In one long stride, they dismounted from the quieter end of the train and she was put back in the same palanquin. The bearers lifted it; in light, hasty pace, dashed out of the station. Her in-laws climbed up the train about the same time from the other end.
The train slugged away. All Minah could see was a number of passing faces looking incredulously through the carriage windows. Next was pure enchantment. Sidu entered through the small opening when bearers put the palanquin down.
“Oh, my love, it was awful. I couldn’t bear to let you go, just couldn’t.” Sidu exclaimed huskily. He kissed her wet cheeks. “Look at you, beautiful you, ravishing. That sari, this jewellery. Remember, how we grew up together? You and I? You’re mine. We were born to be together. I’d go crazy without you.”
Minah stared at him, bemused and gaping with her mouth wide open. How extraordinary for this to be really happening? Sidu was quite the adventurous man.
“I bribed the bearers. I told my parents that I was adopting celibacy to hone my skills by going away on a pilgrimage. I would study religion to become a better teacher, never to return,” Sidu explained.
“Did they believe you?”
“Yes, they did. They said it was an acceptable proposition.”
“Where to now?”
He bent his head on her parted lips and kissed her. One of the bearers knocked on the wobbly little door of the palanquin, saying that they needed to leave before dark. Sidu asked him to carry them to the outskirts of the village.
Since that day, Minah went missing. The police looked for her everywhere diligently. When the bearers were questioned, all they said was that she was last seen with a man. The description of this last man fitted that of Sidu’s, tall, dark and slim profile, but they failed to make the connection, because Sidu was on his way to a pilgrimage.
Soon everyone gave up. The gossip and the moaning ended. The story that spread through the village was that Minah was kidnapped from the train for jewellery and was left to die alone in a distant place. Her body never found. The tainted sari was recovered by Ruby Rahman, who had entered Minah’s room awhile when they left for the station, to check if her trousseau was all taken. As she looked under her bed, she saw a sari and pulled it out. Her bewildered gawk was momentarily fixed on the dry bloodstains. She washed it with her own hands and put it away in her closet. This would be her best kept secret, for she feared the worst. What if Minah was with another man? There was always that possibility.
Only Moushimi knew, and the pundit guessed. Sidu wrote letters to her from anonymous addresses and asked her to bury them in their legendary secret garden, under the desolate mango tree. In her diary nevertheless, Moushumi wrote this narrative without ever exposing their identity: Once upon a time, in an obscure village lived two lovers … .