By Mosarrap H. Khan
The dark clouds had been gathering for a while. The nor’wester would strike soon, bringing momentary relief from the heat and humidity. Mehru wiped the sweat off her face with the corner of her sari. The boy on the lap was tugging at her breast. He must be hungry. She lifted her blouse and held his mouth to her breast. The boy kept quiet and started suckling her.
Mehru was thinking of the cow she had tethered on the green patch a little distance from the house. The summer heat had parched most of the grass, forcing her to take the cow far. The calf had followed the mother eagerly. Should she go and fetch her? Worried, she walked out of the house, hoping she would chance on someone.
“Boudi, are you looking for something?” Topu asked. He lived in the mohalla across the pond.
“I am worried about the cow. I tied her next to the banyan tree.”
“I am going that way. Should I untie it? Where is Ali?”
“Please do. He has gone to the market to buy manure for the sowing.”
“Don’t worry. You get in. I will unfasten it on my way,” Topu walked away with long strides.
Mehru sauntered in and put the boy to sleep on the cot in the verandah.
She picked the dry clothes off the line tied to two bamboo poles in the courtyard. She dumped them on the cot.
There were sliced green mangoes spread out on a mat to dry. She had thought of making pickles with green chili and mustard. This was one ritual she followed every year. She made enough pickles to last almost until the end of the year. Every year in summer, she begged Ali to buy her green mangoes. Sometimes her mother would send them through someone. Mehru gathered the dry slices on the mat and brought it back to the verandah.
The ducks had already arrived home from the pond, leaving a trace of their dropping. She shooed them to the small opening of the enclosure. They reluctantly got in, registering their complaint with loud quaking. Mehru picked up the container and walked to the kitchen at one end of the courtyard. She scooped out some husk, mixed them with rice, poured a little water, and took it back to the enclosure. The ducks sounded happy. How these greedy ducks could eat all the time, she wondered.
A strong gust of wind almost threw her off. She felt the first few drops of cold rain on her skin. It excited her and made her want more. Mehru stood in the middle of the courtyard with her face lifted to the sky in anticipation. The large drops of rain lashed against her face, making her feel a stinging pain. She wanted the rain to batter her face.
Did the wet earth smell the same? It was the beginning of May, another season of nor’wester. The sky was darkening and there was a hint of rain in the cool wind. They were sitting on a divider between the paddy fields, shielded by the green shoots from the prying eyes.
“Should we go back?” Noman had asked her.
“Why didn’t you let me know before coming?” Mehru sounded exasperated. Noman looked at her eager face and smiled.
It was a Saturday. The school was closed early. Mehru stepped out of the school and got on the narrow strip of mud-road that connected it to the eucalyptus-lined red moram road. From far, the school appeared like a tiny floating island in the middle of vast green paddy fields. A little distance away on the right sprouted a qasba on both sides of the metal road.
She had thought of going home straight. Her mother never liked her loitering after school. As she approached the moram road that passed by her village, which was about a twenty-minute walk from the school, she had least expected to see Noman there.
“You? When did you come? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? What if people see us together?” Mehru blurted out in a single breath. Her voice was shivering with excitement and fear.
She looked around to see if any of her friends was following her. For a while, they walked like total strangers, speaking in monosyllables. The spindly, silver eucalyptus trees were the lone witnesses to their longing.
A clear distance away from the school, they looked into each other’s eyes for the first time. He loved the twinkle in her eyes. She liked the innocent, exuberant expression on his face.
“Let’s get off the road and sit somewhere,” Noman said.
“But my mother would be worried if I don’t return home.”
“Don’t worry. I will let you go soon.”
There was a pond on one side of the road, surrounded by paddy fields. They decided to walk down the mud dividers to the pond. The raised banks and dense trees around it gave them privacy. They sat between paddy fields on the farthest side of the pond.
“Noman, this is not right. You shouldn’t come to see me like this. You know this is a village. You can’t behave as if we were meeting in your town,” her voice was firm.
“Believe me, I had not planned this trip earlier. I was going to college and, then, suddenly, decided to see you. Instead of going to college, I took a bus here.”
She took his hands in hers. The warmth of his hands always made her nerves calm down. She leaned in and rested her head on his shoulder. They looked into the distance.
Mehru’s mind was racing with thoughts of her future with Noman. He lived in a prominent district town, where the Kings had ruled a vast swathe of land. The town still adorned an imposing gate that the King had once built in honor of Lord Curzon. She had never visited the town but had heard the stories from Noman. She already knew of the massive lake the King had dug in the middle of his pleasure garden. Noman had told her of Sahil’s, a restaurant that sold dosas. She had never eaten a dosa. Mehru longed to travel with him to his town.
Noman said often, he wanted to travel to bigger cities. His father wanted him to take care of his business. But Noman had plans of moving to a big city after he finished his studies.
She tried to think of her life with Noman under bright city lights, where they would visit parks, eat out often, and go to watch films in theatres. Her mind usually blanked out after a point. She didn’t want to think that far. Would Noman’s parents ever accept a nominally educated village girl as their daughter-in-law, Mehru wondered.
“It might start raining any moment. Should we go back?” Noman’s voice jolted Mehru out of her reverie. She let go of his hand reluctantly. The cool wind pregnant with rain increased her longing for him. She wanted to hold him and not let go.
“Show me your left hand,” Noman demanded.
“Just show it to me.”
Noman had brought out a golden ring from his pocket and slipped it on her finger.
“I want to marry you soon,” Noman had sounded earnest.
Tears of joy brimmed in her eyes. She could hardly speak and held him tight.
That was the last time Mehru had seen Noman. She kept on waiting for him to come back. She wrote a long letter and sent it to him through a cousin. There was no reply. She heard from others Noman had moved to Delhi for further studies.
When a proposal for marriage came from Ali’s family, Mehru’s parents couldn’t refuse. In a family of six daughters and two sons, Mehru was the fifth. Her father could hardly afford a dowry. He had sold most of his land to get his other daughters married. They depended on their eldest son’s salary, who worked in an embroidery factory in Mumbai.
Ali lived in a village around fifty kilometers from Mehru’s. His two-acres of land were just enough to get by.
One night, Mehru took out Noman’s ring from her tiny box. She slipped it on her finger and cried silently. Then she put the ring back with care.
In a month, she was married to Ali and had come away to live with him.
She could hear them mooing. The cow and the calf were home already. Mehru hurried to the shed to tie them. She put some hay in the trough and dipped her hand to check if there was enough water at the bottom. Ali had cut the hay to small bits in the morning, as he does every day. There was enough to last until the next morning.
The calf was suckling the mother. She thought of tying her away until the evening milking was done. Then she let her be.
Mehru could hear the sound of the bell of a cycle. She guessed it must be Ali.
“Open the door,” Ali called out.
Mehru rushed to the front door and opened it. Ali was standing there, drenched. The bagful of manure was tied to the back carrier of the bicycle. Drops of rain slid off the smooth surface of the plastic bag.
“Help me take it down,” Ali muttered, his voice irritated.
She held one end of the bag and helped him carry it to the verandah. They placed it in the corner, where a few other bags were piled up.
Mehru walked across the verandah and brought a gamchha for Ali to wipe his wet head. He took off his shirt, changed into a dry lungi, sat down, and started wiping his head.
The child was still sleeping on the cot. Ali ran his fingers through the child’s hair. His tiny body shivered a bit and went limp again.
Mehru smiled silently. She was happy to have Ali back home. She walked down the verandah to the kitchen.
It was time to make some tea. Ali would like to drink something hot, she thought.
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