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Excerpts from Anukrti Upadhyay’s novellas ‘Bhaunri’ and ‘Daura’.
Bhaunri’s mother gave her grudging consent for the bidai after Bhaunri’s father visited her in-laws in their village and saw the fine house they lived in, and the fields and shop they owned, with his own eyes.
The morning of the day her husband was to come and take her away, Bhaunri’s mother dressed her with care. She made her wear a red, wide-skirted ghaghra. The mirrors on her kanchali reflected the sun. A heavy borla was balanced on her forehead, silver chokers and coin-necklaces, stiff like the collars on the necks of bullock, chafed her long neck. Silver anklets, thick and twisted like the roots of an old banyan tree, hampered her gait.
Her arms were covered from shoulder to wrist with white ivory bangles; she could not bend them with ease. But despite the discomfort, she admired the dull, white gleam and comforting weight of the silver on her dark body, and was not a little proud of these gifts sent by her unseen husband to adorn her.
Just before noon, her husband arrived with his uncle and cousins. He entered the house first. His tall, broad-shouldered form filled the doorframe. Bhaunri’s breath caught as his shadow fell on her – she had never seen anyone as handsome as him. Instantaneously, she forgot that he was a stranger; she only remembered that he was her husband.
For her part, Bhaunri’s mother cast a sour look at her new, and only, son-in-law. Her heart twisted within her. He had come to claim her only daughter, and unless he nourished her heart with love, cherished her carefully, why should she part with the child of her womb? “Men as good-looking as this one are always bad news,” she muttered.
Bhaunri’s father laid out string cots, spread thick, cotton durries on them, and invited the guests to sit. She watched as the men settled on the cots and then turned her veil-less face towards the guests. “Welcome, son-in-law,” she said in her ringing voice. ‘”You see I do not cover my face before you, for isn’t a son-in-law like a son? And is there any need for a mother to cover her face in front of one who suckled at her breast?” The men listened in silence.
Bhaunri handed them earthen pots filled with freshly churned buttermilk. “I have taught Bhaunri everything,” her mother continued. “She can cook a complete meal with two pods of sangari and a handful of lentils, she can birth a calf and ply a hammer, she can sing, dance. But,” her mother paused, and the scowl that had been hovering around her mouth ever since the entry of her guests finally appeared. “But I have also taught her to strike and escape like a nagin if need be.”
Bhaunri’s husband had heard about his mother-in-law from the barber, about her escape from her former husband’s home. “She is wilful,” the barber had said. “Her husband’s like her puppet. She knows some magic and can make difficult births easy, can cure children’s ailments caused by the evil eye. The village folk speak of her with respect. All this has gone to the twice-bedded witch’s head.” The barber had touched his ears in fear.
Bhaunri’s husband rose from the cot and flexed the muscles in his neck and shoulders. “Don’t worry mother- in-law,” he said. “Goga-ji’s shrine in our village is famous in the entire district. We pray to him and are not afraid of snakes. Besides,” he added, “the roof of our house is made of stone and cement, not thatch, so there is no danger of your daughter slipping out that way.” His clansmen sniggered. Even Bhaunri’s father laughed.
Her mother turned away. “I have said what I needed to say. I don’t have time to bandy words or to stand around and giggle foolishly. Come, Bhaunri, we must prepare food for the guests.” Bhaunri followed her, casting a glance at her husband who still stood in the courtyard, his feet planted wide, proud like a male deer. She was certain she would never want to run away from him.
At the entrance of the kitchen, her mother stopped and looked at her. “Remember, girl,” she said, her voice audible all over the house. “I did not stay with a man who did not please me. If hearts don’t meet, bodies are but fleshly houses of sin.”
Bhaunri’s mother fed her guests a sumptuous meal – thick, fresh maize bread, pats of pale butter made from buffalo milk, goat’s meat cooked to tenderness with yoghurt and chillies, whole green chillies roasted on wood fire, and pearly-skinned onions. Bhaunri prepared sweet kheer with milk and rice, and served it in a large brass bowl to her husband, her eyes never leaving him as he ate. Her mother saw it, and her forehead tightened and her scowl deepened.
After the meal, Bhaunri’s husband and his party sat in the courtyard, chatting with her father. Folk from the village came to meet him, but they found Bhaunri’s groom rather taciturn. He spoke little and smiled even less, prompting the women to conclude he was close-natured, giving nothing away.
“He is ghunna too, just like our Bhaunri,” they said. “Like bride, like groom. Ramsha Pir matched them well.” They admired his good looks and wondered aloud at Bhaunri’s mother’s ill temper amidst such blessings. “How come only so few of you have come to fetch our Bhaunri?” they asked. “Don’t your women have more male children to send to win the bride?”
Her husband’s clansmen, the party of cousins and uncles who accompanied him, talked readily enough. “Bheema’s father is away. He is a well-known trader and has many places to visit, much buying and selling to do,” his uncle answered them. “And a number of men from our clan are away too because of the bullock fair. But Bheema’s mother did not want to wait. She wanted to have her daughter-in-law brought home without delay, so we decided to come and fetch Bhaunri.”
“And the handsome Bheema? Did he not want his bride too?’ one of the women taunted.
“Now that he has seen your Bhaunri, he is sure to want her,’ one of the young men in the party replied. The women giggled. They sang ribald songs about Bhaunri’s in-laws, about illicit relationships and wild love-makings and children born out of wedlock and raised secretly in straw baskets. This was customary, and the uncle and cousins listened with relish, taunting the women for being too shy. “Such tame gaali!” they exclaimed. “In our village the gaali sung by our women can make a stone statue blush.”
Excerpted with permission from Bhaunri: A Novel, Anukrti Upadhyay, HarperCollins India.
I remember the first time we arrived here at the dak bangla. Dusk had fallen, but there was just enough light to confirm my suspicion – that Saheb had brought us to yet another burning, godforsaken wilderness in the desert’s entrails. I have been on enough district tours in my years with Saheb to know these places from miles away. They all follow the same pattern – unending sand dunes, scattered dhanis, and seedy dak banglas like this one. One look around, and you know that you are alone with the deadly desert. I have seen too many of these dak banglas and spent too many evenings and nights in dusty rooms, sweating, swatting mosquitoes and cursing my fate…
I am not unreasonable, Sir, I don’t expect to be in Jaipur or Ajmer every day, but anyone would agree that to spend twenty-five days out of thirty in sandpits like these, like a godless goh lizard, is excessive.
A young man needs to go out once in a while with his mates, watch a movie, have a few drinks, that kind of thing. Instead, in these places, after ironing Saheb’s clothes and making his bed and arranging his papers and arguing with the cook over his meals, I have nothing to do but stare at the piles of sand and the wall of sky. I have noticed a strange thing: the sky seems solid and close when you are out here in the desert, like it wants to shut you in forever. You may think me odd, Sir, but watching the burning dunes by day and listening to the sand screeching in the open desert at night would make anyone odd.
True, though we are far from the headquarters and in the middle of this dustbowl desert, it’s not as if there is no one around. There is staff at the dak bangla, and any number of tribesmen from neighbouring dhanis. I could always join them for a game of chaupad or cards, chit-chat, go out and have some local brew. They would be glad enough to have someone like me to talk to. And Saheb won’t mind either – he likes to mingle with them himself. Now, I don’t mind talking to or passing the time occasionally with the folk here, but I can’t mix with them regularly.
Why? Well, for one, they are very ignorant. Most of them haven’t been as far as the headquarters, let alone Jaipur. Besides, all they can think of is goats and camels and silly old stories. Even the staff of the dak bangla are illiterate, mere servants hired locally from among the Banjaras, and I am a government employee – orderly to the Collector. The Additional District Magistrates and Saheb’s Sub-Divisional Magistrate, who would not look at the riffraff around here, call me by my name and ask after my health. Too much familiarity with the desert folk is hardly appropriate for someone like me. I, at all events, try to maintain the decorum of Saheb’s position.
Yes, I realise I am digressing, I apologise for it. So, to go back to when we first arrived here: the dak bangla looked then as it does now – old, all colour burnt out of it by the sun so you can’t tell whether it was always this bleached-bone, old-carcass white. True, the veranda is deep and the rooms are large and numerous, but what is there in the desert except space? And you can see for yourself how wide all the windows are, and completely unshaded against the sun. Though there are new electric fans in the rooms, there are no coolers and the veranda still has an old, tattered, hand-pulled fan.
The broiling heat of the day would make this place as hot as a griddle on a mud chulha if I didn’t keep the staff here on their toes and make them spray water on the reed-blinds four times a day. Saheb, of course, likes this old place very much, much more than his comfortable bungalow at the headquarters…but that is how Saheb is. He has an odd liking for queer places, uncouth people. If he didn’t, would he choose to be buried in this place instead of staying peacefully at the headquarters like other sahebs?
I am not saying there is anything wrong with my Collector Saheb. If he prefers this dak bangla over all the other places, that’s his choice. He is a regular saheb in other ways: he gets angry if his clothes are not ironed properly or his shoes not shined enough or if the driver shows up ten minutes late. But he has his strange ways.
For one, he plays the flute. The flute in its wooden case goes with us everywhere, whether we are going to the tehsil office or touring the dhanis or examining road work. I have to carry it myself, like a nursing mother carries her baby, lest someone mishandles it. Whenever he has free time, he takes the flute out and pipes away. Once he has that bit of bamboo in his hands, he is oblivious to all else, doesn’t care whether servants are within earshot or dhani folk are milling around. He just plays on, for hours sometimes.
This kind of behaviour gives the villagers and servants a chance to get overly familiar. They stand about and listen, speak to him even, telling him they like his playing. The more audacious ones bring their own shepherd’s flutes or other instruments and play reedy, shrill tunes until I remind them to stop. Could these good-for-nothing nomads ever look upon a flute-playing Collector with the awe and dignity he deserves, Sir, or be afraid of him in the slightest? Krishan played the flute, and though he is God he was only taken seriously when he preached the Gita, otherwise he was called such names – cowherd, butter-thief and worse. It goes to show that such things barely work in stories, even for gods.
Excerpted with permission from Daura: A Novel, Anukrti Upadhyay, HarperCollins India.