Part of an unfinished story.
Mightier than a Sword
“ You don’t know how privileged, how lucky you are that today you can go to school. We did not have that privilege. Never neglect your studies.” Dhuli didimoni warned.
Which thirteen-year old child likes to hear such lectures? We didn’t either.
But when we heard, “ Just a stroke of pen, and that saved my life”, we sat up straight.
“How? How was your life saved? Tell us, tell us”. Padma's doe-eyes twinkled. Dhuli didimoni crackled, “Oh that’s a long story. You must go back to your studies now, prepare for your exams.”
“Please, please Didimoni, we’ll stay up late tonight and catch up for our tests, now tell us that story, please,” we cuddled beside her.
|Paan Bata...very close to what I described here.|
“Well, then listen.” She opened up the lid of a brass box. The rectangular ornate box had several chambers inside. We found that the very first one was a shallow tray that held a moistened cloth. Dhuli didimoni gently took out the tray and put aside. Unfolding the moist cotton cloth she took out a betel leaf, paan. Several tiny cylindrical brass pots came out after that. From the very first one she scooped out a little white paste, slaked lime, and smeared it on to the paan with the tip of her forefinger. Shredded areca nut pieces, supari, were added from the second one and then from the very last one she drew out a pinch of silvery something and added on her paan. “This is zarda, a kind of sweet tobacco, absolutely not okay for kids. It will make your head spin like crazy and make you throw up and that’d be the proof that you stole zarda and ate it. ” She warned with wide eyes. Didimoni then folded the paan into a neat triangle and shoved it in her mouth. One side of her cheek flared up as she kept on chewing.
We knew it would be a long wait now until that puffed cheek normalizes. The little pots and pans went back to the brass box to their respective designated space. The lid was shut with a swift click. Didimoni swallowed the juice of her paan with great relish and started:
“ I was the fifth child of the ten children my parents had. But the very first daughter. I had three younger sisters. When I was nine years old, I was married. Don’t remember much of that, only, that I was bundled in a heavy red sari with a thick gold border. Real gold thread. Gold jewelry was hung on me that was too heavy and bulky for my size. I felt like a sack, but fell asleep any way. Late at night, they woke me up and carried me to the groom. I had no idea how the man looked, or what this fuss was all about. All I remembered was, I had overheard a whispering murmur, ‘Oh, what a match, such a beautiful girl for that old coffin-dodger? How long is he going to last?’
‘Hush, hush, think, what a family she is going to be married to, the highest of the Brahmin caste, a Kulin Brahmin. They have three more daughters to be married and this will pave their paths’.
‘Doesn’t the groom have fourteen other wives?’ someone remarked.‘Of course he does. Which Kulin Brahmin groom would you find that doesn’t?’ another answered.
‘Why you frown, dear child. Smile. It’s your wedding today’, an old lady held up my chin with a toothless grin. I must have scowled and turned away, I don’t remember.
I managed to live with my parents for four more years. But then came a day when I became a woman, and it was time to go to my husband’s house.
I vividly remember that day. I had heard that my husband was almost my father’s age. To me he looked like my grandfather and indeed he had fourteen wives.
All my family came to see me off at the river bank While they were busy with the farewell rituals, I looked around.
The sky was crisp cerulean, not a single speck of cloud. A blue machranga, kingfisher bird, with its long scarlet beak gazed faraway. An egret stood on one leg, forever. The swarna champa tree was full of blossoms . Tiny bell shaped, golden flowers made an amber circle around the tree. People walked on them, trampled, unaware. Unaware of that heavenly smell.
That smell defined home to me. My childhood, my familiar life, all that I was leaving here.
Ulululu. I startled at that shrill. They were now inaugurating me, ceremoniously saying good bye, wishing me a safe journey to my new life. Clay lamps were lit, sandalwood paste was smeared on my forehead. A man from the groom’s team announced that we must hurry, speed things up. My younger sister, Bonu, scurried. Streaks of tears running down her cheek, she embraced me in a tight hug and emptied something from the corner of her sari to mine. And then tied a tight knot to keep the contents safe. The swarna champa flowers. Some spilled on my feet. How could she know?
They pushed me to board the boat. The rope unfurled. The vessel shook. I felt dizzy as if there was no ground under my feet. Indeed, there was none. I held on to those flowers as tight as I could to my bosom. They were the only tie with my known world."