Skylark Girlby Aruni Kashyap
Three weeks before Tejimola was born, her mother Numoli had eaten so many orange coloured ripe peaches, and swallowed so many slippery seeds that she was reminded of her childhood fear of turning into a tree overnight if you swallowed seeds by mistake. Petrified, she couldn't sleep all night. She had strange dreams of turning into different kinds of trees: a large-trunked tamarind tree, slim, lanky and weak papaya tree, or a mango tree where ghosts chose to reside. All night, she twitched on her bed. In the morning, when she told her dreams to her husband, the wandering businessman Dhaniram Saud, he had chided her. He said her dreams were baseless. But Numoli had disagreed; she had those dreams in the morning and was facing the east when she had woken up drenched in sweat. She placed the cup of tea--made from the dried bark of mature arjun-trees--in front of him. Aghuni, the densely wrinkled, tall and large-eyed midwife who would help in the delivery three weeks later was sitting at the backyard when Numoli was having that conversation with her husband. Later, she told Numoli there was nothing to be afraid of. She said that it wasn't the childhood fear that was haunting her. Her dreams were anticipating her unborn baby. The lush leafy mango tree she had seen in her dreams, into which she saw herself transform, standing all alone in a chrome-yellow harvested paddy field, signaled a healthy baby.
Never before had Aghuni been wrong in her interpretations of dreams, but this time she was.
Numoli died while giving birth to Tejimola. While cutting the umbilical cord, Aghuni had seen that it had started to grow tiny, light green buds. By the time she had bathed the baby, those buds had started to turn into mature leaves. Though she plucked them one by one like plucking fine bud-like feathers off the body of a pigeon being prepared to cook after soaking it in hot water, they had started to sprout out from different parts of her body like grass on the roadsides after the first rains of summer. By the time Numoli's eyelids were covered by rapidly maturing parrot-green peach leaves, she died, unable to breathe because the leaves were sucking all the blood from her body; she had already lost a lot of it during childbirth. Carefully, Aghuni plucked off everything; bud by bud, leaf by leaf, sprout by sprout. She tried hard to make Numoli look like a normal corpse by scrubbing the skin of the dead woman with dry, powdered lentils soaked in water so that the fine brown and white roots of those leaves didn't remain stuck to the skin. Only then she informed Dhaniram Saud about the birth of his daughter. There were no other women in the labour room - cherasali.
That night Aghuni told Dhaniram Saud that she didn't want to leave the house until the baby girl could take care of herself, was married off to a good boy who would be able to feed her by working in the fields, if not the newly found tea-gardens of the British that were swarming with Santhali workers from central India who spoke a strange language. She loved the baby's dead mother like a sister, she said. But it wasn't only concern for the newborn that had her there. Aghuni was worried that the baby would also start sprouting leaves and die. Though she didn't know how she'd prevent that, and how she'd save her, she wanted to linger around.
Dhaniram Saud built her a small but strong hut at his backyard where Aghuni spent the rest of her days looking after the baby; she didn't have any relatives so she accepted that house as her own. She used the hut only to keep her clothes and belongings, the ornaments that her mother-in-law had given her on the deathbed. Her days were spent beside the baby's cradle, and then later, her bed.
They had named her Tejimola but everyone would call her 'Teji' affectionately. By the time Saud had married for the second time after the elders in the village pressed him to remarry so that the girl had a mother's caring hands around her, Aghuni had plucked different kinds of leaves off her skin at least four times. She used diverse methods such as rubbing the paste of black-eyed beans' or fresh turmeric to do that. She didn't want to repeat the haphazard method of plucking. She thought it was the reason why Numoli had bled to death, for which she'd blame herself silently for the rest of her life.
As a result of her regular attempts, which she masked as "skin care" so that the stepmother Romola didn't know what was going on, Tejimola had the brightest skin in the whole village. She was dark-skinned, but shone even during moonless nights or at dusk when the day and the night met for a while to chat. She also had the most beautiful oval eyes like slim fishes, with long, thick eyelashes, and Aghuni was worried that at any moment they would turn into vines of a bottle gourd. Probably that worry killed her. Two weeks before the red-necked leaf-green parrot sang to a middle-aged Dhaniram Saud who was packing his bags for the next trip around the world to sell his wonderful handicrafts and silk clothes collected from around the region, Aghuni passed away in her sleep.
The parrot had sung:
When you see me, you frown,
Into a lady your daughter has grown,
When would you get her
a groom from the town?
It was a shrill voice, accusatory tone that reminded Dhaniram Saud of his second wife, Romola, who was the most quarrelsome woman in the village and treated Tejimola like a slave. He looked at the parrot, sighed, and assured him that when he goes around for the next six months in his steamer through the chest of the Brahmaputra River, he would look out for a handsome groom for his only daughter.
But Romola had other plans. Just like the previous trips, the night his boat floated into the Brahmaputra and moved towards the Bay of Bengal, and then to the Arabian Sea, she cooked delicious dishes for her three sons but gave Teji only left-over rice with salt, made her sleep on the floor on a bamboo mat and forced her to do the dishes, wash all the clothes, and sometimes even tether the mooing homecoming cows in the cowshed in the evenings - a man's job.
Tejimola didn't worry for she had started to think it was routine, and loved the only person she could call "Ma". The night Saud left, a small green bud sprouted on her finger, which she used sandalwood paste to remove as soon as she could. It was a method taught by Aghuni, who she loved and missed too much.
On her best friend's wedding, Tejimola was surprised at her step-mom's generosity. When she had asked for a good cotton dress from the wooden shelf of her dead mother, Romola had given Tejimola the most expensive golden muga-silk dress to wear. Tejimola hesitated for a while. But Romola had smiled warmly and said, "Ah, you don't have to wear those old designs. And you should start wearing a full-sleeved jakit-blouse too. That is one convenient thing the British people brought with them to this place — instead of wrapping the reeha, now you can wear a blouse under your dress. I will give you my new silk dress bought from Sualkuchi with a matching blouse."
Tejimola hesitated even more, "Ma, are you sure?"
"Ah, I am growing old my dear Teji! If the grown up girl of the house doesn't wear my dresses who would? Haven't you seen your brothers? God knows what kind of women they bring home when they grow up. If this old lady gets a corner to rest along with two meals a day after they bring home women to share their beds, I will consider it enough. But then, who would wear my beautiful dresses? You must deck up for your best friend's wedding. Will you be able to go alone?"
"Yes, I can go alone." She looked at the dress and said, "That's a beautiful dress."
But Romola had other plans. Sinister plans. While packing the dress in a jute satchel, she had placed a weak smolder and a small brown skinned rat in between the creases of the silk dress.
The path to her best friend's house was windy. It was the month of Phagun and blood-red silk cotton flowers had spread a carpet on the road. From a distance, its long, slim, petals looked like the red-coloured nails of a prostitute. Teji had felt something moving in her jute satchel. She wanted to open it and check. But she was scared because her stepmother had warned her not to even look at it before reaching the wedding. Romola had said that if she opened it, the dress would become dirty because it was so windy and dusty. She knew her mother's wrath. She was too pleased and overwhelmed at the sudden display of love, and she didn't want to disappoint her. She wanted to do everything that would please her. She walked faster; deciding she would open the bag and check what was wrong only after reaching her friend's place where she would take a bath and change. From a distance, a Forest Song sung by some unknown farmer came and stood near her. It refused to leave, blocked her way as she walked. When she started humming it while walking briskly, it cleared the way and so she hummed it all her way. She didn't see the mild smoke that the jute satchel was emitting because she had tucked it between her arms and pressed it against the right side of her body.
Once she had reached the wedding place, Teji freaked out after seeing the partially burnt and rat-chewed dress. She sat in a corner of the changing room and wept. She said her mother would kill her now that the dress was spoiled because it was gifted to Romola by her old aunt on her wedding with Dhaniram Saud.
Sokhi, her best friend, tried to console her, "Come on Teji, you aren't responsible for it."
"But how would I explain, Sokhi?"
"You don't have to explain anything — just tell her the truth."
"She will hold me responsible and beat me, kill me."
Someone called Sokhi from the other room. It was time she bathed with turmeric paste and dressed up. The smell of flowers and different kinds of fruit-paste that would be applied on her body during the ritual bath invaded the sullenness of the room, turning it cheerful. Sokhi opened the wooden box that had ornate designs on it and took out a new pat-silk dress that she was gifted the other day so that Teji didn't have to wear cotton clothes during the wedding. But Teji couldn't enjoy the wedding. A fear tugged at her heart like the distant mournful songs of cowherds. A fear pulled the tender strings of her heart like the sorrowful tone of the curved aero-phones made from old, dead buffalo-horns.
She was sad, the teller of wonderful stories, her best friend, with whom she had shared the news of her first periods and first crushes, was going away to some distant land. She wondered when would they ever meet again and hoped to get married to someone who lived in her best friend's village too. The fears didn't decrease; like monsoon rivers, they overflowed, since she didn't have answers to furnish about the burnt silk dress. When the women sang the parting song, when Sokhi went to hug each person she was close to, Teji couldn't stop crying:
O Lucky Daughter of the house!
With betel-nuts in your hands
Go say goodbye to your mother
With silk-dresses in your hands
Go touch the feet of your father
With worn-out toys in your hands
Go kiss the forehead of your little brother
With the gold ornaments in your hands
Go clasp the palms of your elder brother
With mischief twinkling in your eyes
Go hug your closest girlfriends
Who you would
never meet again—
remember: a girl's life is just a
String of ephemeral images
formed by meeting nimbus clouds.
Before leaving the premises of this house
at least turn back once, if you
don't want the pots and pans of his house
to follow you down the dusty road,
O Lucky Daughter of the house!
O Lucky Daughter of the house!!
Teji's mother didn't believe her, and as soon as she reached home, her mother pulled her long slippery hair and slapped her. As a punishment Romola asked Teji to help in grinding the rice that was soaked to make pithas. Tejimola pleaded, said that she would help her, but at least Romola must trust her that she wasn't responsible for what happened to the silk dress. But Romola had planned Tejimola's death for a long time, and this was the golden opportunity — when her father wasn't around. At first, she ground her right hand. When she cried, "Ma, you ground my right hand," she said, "Use your left" and when she cried, "Ma, you ground both my legs, please let me go," Romola asked her to use her head. She cracked her skull too, with the wooden grinder.
Romola buried Tejimola at her backyard. All these years, Tejimola's flesh and blood had been waiting for this moment for which her mother died during childbirth. As soon as Romola turned her back, Tejimola's flesh started to germinate and gradually turned into a creeper gourd's plant. The soil sucked her blood from her vessels, nourishing itself. The leaves, twigs, and the roots kept Tejimola's soul intact and protected.
At the lonely backyard, during windy afternoons, the gourd plant sang songs, spreading the fresh smell of gourds around it. People usually didn't suspect, because it was normal for songs to float during those days of lonely windy slow afternoons thickened by the sounds of cooing doves as attempts to impress their female mates. The songs sung by the creeper plant were soft. Even if someone stood near it, it sounded as if it came from a distance, as if a faraway woman was singing.
Maybe because of the guilt, Romola hadn't been on that side for weeks after she had buried Tejimola. So, one afternoon, after lunch, when a lanky beggar-woman came asking for gourds she was surprised.
"Foolish beggar, you must be day dreaming. I haven't eaten gourds for weeks and in fact, to cook the rohu-fish for dinner, I sent my son just a while ago looking for a good matured one in someone's house. Where the hell have you seen gourds?"
"I wouldn't lie, Aaideu!" The woman addressed her respectfully, "You are the owner of this house; if you don't want to give me a gourd when you have so many, I don't have anything to say."
The woman turned to leave. Her dirty clothes around her emaciated body swayed in the breeze.
"I really don't know what you are talking about - if you have seen any, go help yourself — I got no problem." Romola said and continued with her footloom, trying to make a beautiful blue flower bloom there. Irritated, she started to grumble about greedy beggar women.
Soon after, howling and crying, the woman returned and fainted right in front of her.
Romola was stunned.
Grumbling and hollering, she rushed indoors and came out with a glass of cold water that she sprinkled on the woman's eyes and face.
"Are you okay? Are you okay? What happened? What did you see?"
When she regained consciousness after a long time, she said, sitting up, with sweat still dripping from her head, beads of perspiration still emerging on her forehead, "There is a ghost in that creeper plant! It says she is Tejimola and her step-mom had killed her because of a silk dress! Who is she?"
Romala paced in the veranda from one end to the other. She was petrified because some people in the village were already asking about her and she had said that she hadn't returned after her best friend's wedding. Suddenly she decided to do something about it — it's just a plant! She is dead! She went it, took a huge machete and walked to the backyard towards the creeper plant. She strained her ears and heard that someone was singing a 'parting wedding song'. Quickly, without wasting further time, she chopped the plant into pieces. The tender seeds of the gourd plant flew around; its juice stained her white dress, and she panted and sweated. There were four-hundred and fifty nine large gourds in the plants, ninety-two immature ones, and three-thousand and forty-five flowers, which she picked up one by one - first on her own and later helped by her two sons who returned from the fields after their tang-guti games. The eldest who had gone looking for a gourd hadn't returned yet. Together, they buried them in the farthest corner of the garden by digging a deep hole.
This time, at the place where the twigs, leaves, roots and the mature and immature fruits of the creeper-gourd were buried, there grew a plant of reddish elephant-lime. A few weeks later, when the yet-to-be-men village cowherds came asking for lush ripe limes that were growing at the farthest corner of her backyard-garden, she didn't worry until they started to flee, screaming at the top of their voice.
Romola was sitting in front of her courtyard, grating a coconut. One of them flung himself on the ground in front of her, thick white froth oozing out of his mouth like a mischievous idea germinating in a child's mind. Another one sat and cried like a baby. Before fainting, the one who cried like a baby told her about a singing lime tree:
Don't you dare stretch your hands,
I am not a lime tree,
ground and buried
because of a pair of silk dress,
By the time Dhaniram Saud reached his village, it was autumn. Fields had turned golden with swaying ripe paddy-stalks, welcoming the clear skies where stars bloomed in millions like tiny yellow flowers in a mustard field. Far away in a distant village in lower-Assam, he had met a guy who he thought would be the best for Tejimola. Hardworking and muscular, he touched the feet of elders, listened to his mother, helped his grandmother grind her betel in an iron-pestle with lime stone until they were bright-red and felt sharply on the tongue. He wasn't a smoker, had no bad habits. He slept early, rose early. His skin was the colour of gold for he always bathed before sunrise. The boat was nearing his village. The sound of splashing water while the oak-wood oars made way along with the rhythmic song of the boatman almost sent him into a thin lull:
Kanai, take us to the other shore
The sun has created long shadows now.
If you take too long to reach home,
Your milk will curdle,
Won't your mother scold you then?
Kanai, take us to the other shore
As soon as you can!
He was woken up by the excited chatter of one of his crewmembers.
"Look at that!"
"No, no, I have seen many, but this is divine."
"Arrey don't go, it might be charmed …"
"Yes, yes, we are not very far from Mayong — the land of sorcerers!"
"That's true; they turn human beings into buffaloes and make them work in the fields."
Dhaniram Saud sat up, wore his turban, checked if the tail fell gracefully on his spine and walked out from his resting place where a soft bed was spread for him with fruits, water, and betel nuts placed in a finely woven bamboo-creel. Even the most wonderful sight amazed him: he had never seen a bigger brighter redder lotus in his life — as large as an umbrella crafted from bamboo. In the distance, he saw the large steamers of the British moving slowly towards Calcutta, carrying goods and students who went to study in colleges there. One or two men stood out, looking at them, their white skin shining like ivory in the sun.
"I am going to pluck this for Tejimola, only a daughter like her, only a beautiful girl like her deserves it."
And the lotus sang, retelling a mournful story starting with a rat, a smolder, and a friend's wedding. Dhaniram Saud didn't believe her but Tejimola could sing only once so when he ordered for the lotus plant to be uprooted and thrown away, she couldn't sing again, protest, beg.
Suddenly, when they were about to uproot the misleading, evil lotus, he said, "Stop!"
He looked closely at the blood red flower, opened both his palms.
He took a fresh piece of betel on one, and spat out chewed betel on another. "If you are the real Tejimola, you will turn into a skylark and come and peck on the chewed betel on my right palm. If you are some a ghost trying to delude me, you will come and chew the fresh piece of betel on my left hand. If I have lived a virtuous life, if I have respected my parents, if I truly believe in God, you will be compelled by the divine forces of nature to follow my commands!"
The air was suddenly still.
A bee went near the lotus but went away without sitting on it.
A dragonfly went to sit on its centre but went a different route in the air.
The steamer carrying goods and students to Calcutta was far away now. So far away that it looked as if it were merging into the hills at the background.
One man in the crew said, "The lotus breathes, I felt it."
"I command you. If I have lived a virtuous life, if I have respected my parents, if I truly believe in God…"
Dhaniram Saud hollered again.
When he reached home that afternoon, he carried a caged brown skylark.
The step-mom didn't ask anything about it. When asked where Tejimola was, she started to howl and said that she had eloped with a guy when she went to her best friend's wedding. So ashamed she was that she didn't bother to tell any of the villagers. Her three sons, in varying stages of adolescence with varying lengths of incipient beards on their chins and upper-lips, lied that they went to enquire about in her best friend's village and several people there had confessed secretly, saying that they didn't want to taint the name of the famous Dhaniram Saud, so they were keeping quiet.
He took a long piece of red-bordered sador, went near the cage and said, "My daughter, now I command you to take your real form and wear this."
A month later, the village saw the most wonderful wedding they had ever seen, stories of which they would tell their great-grandchildren.
The step-mom was never seen; while in a corner of the village where people didn't go, for the rest of their lives the three sons kept thinking of different plots of harm to Tejimola and her husband. They never succeeded.