A new person had appeared in my village and for me, who was always looking for change, she became the subject of close scrutiny and wide speculation. The usual questions of who, from where, why, kept muddling around in my inquisitive mind. My mind could never let things be. Ever since I was a child, I had to know everything about every event, every person, that caught my fancy. But this was not just regular curiosity which could be satiated with raw information. I do not know how, but I could feel something pulling me towards her. I had a yearning to know about her, know her. It was probably her withdrawn conduct, or her bowed down head with downcast eyes, that were quietly and shyly taking in the surroundings, that attracted me to her, like bees to honey.
I observed her from the mound of sand I was sitting on, that was in the clearing between a few kachcha houses, my eyes following her movements, as she moved with cautious steps towards Jaimal ji, the village panchayat head. She was more nodding than speaking, while he seemed to be giving her some directions, probably to a place she could share with one of the other women.
I was never one to think twice or consider what people might say or think about me, which was not such a great attribute to have, considering the village I lived in, which, for lack of other means of entertainment, was full of gossip mongers and opinion makers. Anyhow, I walked up to her and said, as charmingly and welcomingly as I could, “Ganikhamma, you are new around here, I believe. Have you come to visit someone?”
What happened next was disarming yet not totally surprising. She swiftly shielded her face with the red bandhini dupatta that already covered her head and half ran away as if terrified I might hurt her.
I stared after her blankly as Jaimal ji came back out from inside his house where he had disappeared to upon giving instructions to the girl. “I’m sorry Bh...huh?. Where did she go?” he wondered.
“She’s gone Jaimal ji. By the way who was she? I’ve never seen her around,” I asked keeping my voice as levelled as possible.
“You have to know everything, don’t you, Pratap. She’s Bhanwari, Sugna’s distant relative. Her step father, who she was living with, has just passed away, so she has come to live with Sugna now, as she is the only relative she has left.” I listened on eagerly for more information on her, but just then, Jaimal ji was interrupted with a call from his wife and he left immediately, leaving me even more interested in knowing more about Bhanwari.
I walked back home slowly, pondering and wondering about Bhanwari. There was something about her that had me so interested. Her brown eyes that I had happened to see before she shielded her face, had mesmerized me. There seemed to have been so much pain and grief in them. I so badly wanted to know whether I was right and if yes, why it was so.
As I entered my house, my mother who was cooking in one corner of the kitchen space, squatting down next to the stove, said, “Pratap, beta, where were you all this while? Lunch is going to be ready soon. Go wash your hands and then come have some food,” she said while putting a roti on to the stove. “See how thin you have become. Don’t your hostel people give you enough food to eat?”
I just smiled, and kept nodding my head, not really registering what she was saying. My mind was filled with the images of the frightened, quiet Bhanwari. I had to go talk to Sugna and find out more about her.
“Ma, I’ll be back in half an hour. I have to go talk to Sugna about something,” I said and rushed off, with her voice calling after me, “But listen, Pratap...? What is so important?”
I hurried ahead, and reached Sugna’s hutment in about 5 minutes. Ours was a small village with hardly 20 odd families living on the sandy edge of Jodhpur city. Everyone knew everyone, and there was an amicable atmosphere most of the times, so I did not have to worry about disturbing Sugna.
“Sugna...Sugna...?” I called out to her from outside.
Sugna came out with an orange bandhini dupatta covering her head, as was the custom among Rajasthani women, especially in villages. “What happened, Pratap? How come you thought of me suddenly?” she mocked me.
“Jaimal ji told me about Bhanwari. She is your distant relative I heard. She looked upset for some reason, so I thought I’ll come and be a little friendly to our guest here,” I said.
Sugna immediately got a disturbed look on her face and replied in a grave voice, “Pratap, I know you well. You love to meddle in other’s matters. Bhanwari is not here to make any friends. I suggest you leave her alone. That way you too will remain happy.” Her words of warning surprised me. Why was she trying to shield Bhanwari away? What was it about her?
“But Sugna, I am just trying to be friendly. Let me talk to her at least once...” I requested, but to no avail. She hurried back inside and drew the curtains closer together, that indicated the end of our talk.
I felt even more confused, and curious. Now I had to talk to Bhanwari in some way. And I had to do it myself. “I’ll do it tomorrow morning,’’ I thought to myself, hoping that Sugna would not take Bhanwari along when she goes with the other village women to fill water from the water tanker that comes every morning.
I spent the rest of the day restlessly, my head filled with Bhanwari’s thoughts. It was not her physical beauty that attracted me to her. I had just got a slight glimpse of her when she had arrived. It had been more her reticence, her demure demeanour that had attracted me to her. I wasn’t clear why I needed to know about her and talk to her so badly. I just did. I’ve often heard, sometimes in life one is so enraptured by someone that there is no rhyme or reason to that attraction. I guess this was just one of those things.
The next day, I woke up early morning after a fidgety night. I hurriedly dressed and before my mother could question me about anything, I slipped out, in pursuit of Bhanwari. I reached Sugna’s hutment and cautiously hid behind another hutment near hers’.
When I saw her leaving with the other women without Bhanwari I slowly walked to her hutment, and called out softly, ‘Bhanwari?’ I heard some harried footsteps inside, which seemed to be approaching the entrance, and after about two minutes, a soft voice called out warily, ‘Who’s it?’ For some weird reason, I felt fluttering in my stomach when I heard her voice. It sounded so innocent, yet cautious.
I answered back, ‘It’s me, Pratap.’
‘Sugna is not at home. Come later, please,’ came her reply.
‘No, no. It’s ok. I’ve actually come to speak with you,’ I said hurriedly, before she could retreat back into the hut.’
‘Me?’ came her alarmed voice, ‘Did I do something wrong?’
‘No, no, I see you have come new to our village. Jaimal ji told me about your tragedy. I’m very sorry. I just wanted to come and talk to you, welcome you to our village,’ I said.
‘I do not want to talk to anyone, please,’ came her disturbed reply, as she rushed back into the confines of the hut.
I stood there confounded and puzzled. What was all the mystery, and aloofness all about? Was I doing something wrong? I was as polite as possible.
The next day a similar scene occurred, as I again tried to make some conversation with her, when Sugna went for water in the morning and I was again unsuccessful. This continued for the next three days: I would try to start a dialogue with her, which would remain a monologue, as she would snub me and go off hurriedly every time. It was as if she was trying to avoid me.
But it was not only me; I noticed she would not mingle with any of the other folk, would keep to herself constantly, sometimes with Sugna for company, but mostly alone. Neither did the village folk seem to care too much about mingling with her. I did not even want to ask anyone else anything about her. A hundred questions would rise otherwise and all would accuse her, and I did not want that to happen or she might withdraw even further into her shell.
I had to leave for Jaipur the next day, where I was doing my Bachelors in Science, and I had wanted to establish some kind of verbal contact with Bhanwari before that. But I could see that was clearly not going to be possible, what with Bhanwari’s aloofness, and Sugna’s unwillingness to participate in my effort. Well, I decided, I would have to take care of this the next time I come back to the village. I just hoped, she would still be around.
A month passed and one day, I got a call from my mother, telling me that Bhojraj ji, our neighbour had passed away due to a heart attack. In our small, close-knit village, everyone is a part of everyone’s sorrow as well as joy. So the next day, I left for my village, having taken a leave of seven days. Upon reaching, I headed straight to Bhojraj ji’s place. I paid my condolences to his son, who was his only other surviving close relative apart from the daughter, and silently went and stood among the rest of the gents.
Suddenly I heard a loud wail emerge from the cluster of women, who were till now sobbing in dim tones. I looked towards the cluster and to my amazement, the loud wailing was coming not from Bhojraj ji’s daughter, as I had presumed it was, but from Bhanwari!
I was utterly bewildered to see her bawling, when she had been just one month old in the village. I had observed her not mixing with anyone in the village, so there was no way she could possibly have been close to him. I found the scene extremely odd, but no one else seemed to have any puzzled looks on their faces. She continued to bawl till, Bhojraj ji’s body was taken by the male members of the village for the funeral. I accompanied the death procession duly, all the time my puzzled head swarming with questions.
A few hours after the funeral, while I was on my way back from the post master, I happened to spot Bhanwari sitting by herself at the edge of the playground which was nearly empty that day. I seized this opportunity to strike a conversation with her and to question her about the morning occurrence, I had witnessed.
‘Ganikhamma,’ I greeted her softly.
‘Khammaghanni,’ she replied in a whisper.
‘May I sit down for a while?’
She silently nodded her head. I sat down next to her. I slyly tried to observe her side profile as that was all I could see, her head being covered by the dupatta. Her brown eyes were staring blankly ahead. She had a petite nose, with a silver coloured nose-ring in her right nostril, and her small, dark hued, round lips, were calmly joined together. ‘She is really pretty,’ I thought to myself.
A few minutes passed in silence. This time I was taking it slow: I did not want her to ignore me or run away again.
‘I was very upset to hear about Bhojraj ji. He was a good man.’
She again silently nodded her head in agreement.
I went on, ‘He was very helpful. When my father passed away, he helped my mother and me a lot of times.’ I looked at her staring out in the distance, but I could sense she was listening. I continued, ‘He was very warm with everyone. He befriended people very easily.’
She remained silent. After a few seconds, I asked, ‘I believe you too felt his loss today deeply. I didn’t realise you’d become so attached to him in such less time!’
Her posture suddenly became rigid, and she seemed uncomfortable. I immediately dropped the topic as I sensed she might run away again. ‘Have you ever been to Jaipur? I study there. It’s a beautiful place.’
She then eased out slightly, and seemed glad at the change of topic. Henceforth, I rambled on about Jaipur and my life there for the next half hour, and slowly I could feel her opening up, as she questioned me intermittently. Later, as I walked back home, I felt pleased and a sense of glee about finally having had a conversation with her.
Slowly over the next six days that I was on leave, we began spending more and more time together, with me talking about my family, my life in Jaipur, and my friends while she listened attentively yet quietly.
The queer thing was she refused to divulge any details at all about her life, her family. Whenever I happened to question her about it, she would either change the topic, or remember some work she needed to finish. So I never really knew her, something that I really wished I would, because slowly I began to harbour feelings for her. I had anyway been attracted to her, and now the attraction was turning into serious affection.
I left for Jaipur after the stipulated time of my leave was over, with thoughts of Bhanwari in my mind and love for her in my heart.
He came back, on leave, after three months. I had been waiting for him eagerly all this while. I felt so drawn towards him. His talks were so charming, interesting, and he was always so gentle and kind with me. I could see his fondness for me in his eyes: the way he looked at me, the way he spoke to me. I was anxious yet excited, maybe he was in love with me.
But what would happen when he got to know of the reality? Would he have the same sort of affection for me? Or would he abandon me too, like all others have? My identity is my mother’s legacy. Not my choice. But would he understand that or would he too shun me away? I pray to god, not!
With these thoughts muddling about in my head, I headed to my corner of the playground, next to the shrubs, to sit there, knowing Pratap would come to meet me there. When I reached, he was already waiting for me there. I got extremely wary, when I saw the look on his face. His face had a melancholy expression of hurt.
As I approached, he said, ‘Why did you not tell me Bhanwari?’
My heart sank. He knew the truth. How I did not know, neither did I want to. I just bowed my head silently, embarrassed and at the same time afraid that the one ray of hope in my life was about to disappear.
‘Tell me Bhanwari. Why did you hide the truth from me? When I saw you did not want to talk about your life, I thought probably you had had some disturbing experiences that you did not want to recall. But this? Why did you not tell me?’ spoke his accusing voice.
‘I thought you would leave me and go away like all others,’ I replied softly, as a tear rolled down my cheek.
To my surprise, he came nearer and wiped my tear away with his finger, saying gently, ‘Bhanwari, I love you. I have had feelings for you since the very day you came to the village. You were the one who distanced yourself from me.’
‘But, I was scared...’
‘You should have told me the truth. There is nothing to be scared about. I still like you. And I will not abandon you.’
My heart fluttered at his words. Those words were something I had been craving to hear for so long. I began weeping tears of relief and joy, as he enveloped me into a hug. That was the first time I was not afraid of my identity.
Our bond grew stronger over the next nine months. That was a magical period. He went away to Jaipur for his studies for one last phase, and then after four months, he was back, for good.
When had Pratap become such an essential part of my life, I had not realised. But the fact was that I could not imagine my life without him now. After years of being shunned by people, his unconditional acceptance of me touched my heart which is now full of warmth and affection for him.
He would often speak about the future, talking of taking up a job in the city, having his own proper house, and even marriage. But I knew better than to raise my hopes. Would his mother accept me, knowing my reality? What would the villagers say? They never even mingled with me on a regular basis. There would be so many objections from people. People like me are not considered a part of mainstream society. We are as good as outsiders. Uncanny, as we are the ones who bid farewell to members on behalf of the society.
Nevertheless, Pratap never saw any hurdles in his plans. When I would gently remind him of my identity and the stigma that came with it in our society, he would lightly rebuke me saying, ‘Do not worry. I will handle it all.’ And I would have no option but to live my dreams through his eyes for those few hours, all the while knowing they might never come true.
The wheel of time turned. June dawned, the hottest month of the year, and with it came severe heat. There would be not a single moment when we would not be wet with sweat, our throats parched at all times, irrespective of the vast amount of water we drank. Due to scarcity of rain, the water tanker would get less than half the usual amount, to the village. The unavailability of sufficient water for villagers, gave way to numerous problems. People falling ill became a frequent recurrence.
One day Pratap did not turn up at our usual meeting place. I wondered what was keeping him as he had never been late. I waited for about an hour, after which I went back home, full of worry and anxiety. I could not go to his place to check up on him, as I was unsure of the reaction his mother might have.
So instead I asked Sugna to go to his place and check whether he was alright or not.
‘Bhanwari, don’t get too involved with Pratap, please. All this drama will lead to nothing,’ she said seriously.
‘Please just go see him once, Sugna. I promise I won’t get too hopeful. Please, just once,’ I implored.
Finally she relented and left for Pratap’s house.
An hour passed, and my apprehension grew by the second. Finally after an hour and a half, Sugna returned with a solemn expression. One look at her face told me something was wrong. I felt my heart heavy as I asked her frantically, ‘What’s happened? Is he alright?’
She remained quiet for a few minutes and slowly spoke the very words that I was dreading to hear, ‘He is seriously unwell, Bhanwari. He has 103o fever and severe dehydration.’
My heart sank. I knew, under the present conditions of water shortage and the severe heatstroke, that this was a serious matter. I felt numb as Sugna’s words continued to pour into my head, half registering.
‘Doctor Sahab had come to check him while I was there, and he told Mandhari kaaki that Pratap needed to be given lots of water continuously, and to keep a wet cloth on his forehead at all times. But then Jaimal ji who was also present there, said water was very difficult to arrange for as the water tanker has not come for the last two days, and there is very little water left for even the others and so....’
She continued saying something but I was too upset to hear more.
I began thinking of the worst, at the same time wishing desperately to go see him. But I knew his mother would not like it if I went there.
I decided to go and at least be near him. I walked to his house, and went and positioned myself near the back window of his room. I peeped in and saw him lying on the cot, unconscious. His face was gaunt and sweaty, and his mouth dried. His hand was shrivelled and limply hanging down the side of the cot.
Seeing Pratap like that brought tears to my eyes. I had never felt this sort of ache in my heart for someone else, not even for my parents who had died when I was a little child. I had never harboured any love for my step father who was never more than just human with me.
At that moment I felt even more helpless than I ever had. I wanted to do something to make him well again, hear him talk of our future together, making plans, assuring me that all would be well. I wanted to see his black eyes gleaming with laughter again, the corner of his eyes crinkling up. But I could do nothing, nothing at all.
I stayed there for the rest of the day, oblivious to the rest of the world. All my appetite had vanished. I just stood and watched Pratap, who lay on the cot, unconscious throughout. Every few hours, his mother would come in with a damp cloth to lay it on his forehead, and would sob silently. Seeing her plight upset me even more.
In the evening, Sugna came and dragged me away, despite resistance from me. But since I did not have too much energy left to argue, I went along. But as soon as the next day dawned, I was back at the window.
Three days passed like so, when in the afternoon I saw Doctor Sahab enter the room. I immediately became attentive. He checked Pratap’s temperature, and examined him thoroughly. Gravely, he looked up from Pratap, and addressed his mother in a grave tone, “Mandhari kaaki, his condition has worsened. I’m sorry, but I do not think he will survive now, for long.’
My eyes widened in terror as my heartbeat quickened. This could not be true. I refused to believe my ears. But how could I ignore the sight of his mother’s tears flowing uncontrollably, which gave testimony to the truth in Doctor Sahab’s words.
I just stood and stared at Pratap’s bloodless face, observing the slight rise and fall of his chest, his nostrils flaring as he took his last few breaths, his eyelids fluttering very slightly. I wanted to take in every little detail of him. What upset me most was that he didn’t even know I was nearby. I tried hard to recollect the last few happy moments we had shared together and I felt my breath constricting.
Within a few minutes, I realised that Pratap’s chest movement had stopped, his eyelids no longer fluttering, his nostrils no longer flaring. My own breathing seemed to stop as I heard Doctor Sahab say quietly, ‘He’s no more.’
Here I am now, sitting in front of his motionless body. His eyes are no longer lit up with hope, his face is expressionless. I will never see his smile again, the smile that filled me with joy and left me feeling contented. I will never hear him talk again, talking of our no longer existent future together. I felt hollow inside, as if a part of me had died.
‘Ask the Rudaali (mourner) to start,’ I hear one of the men gathered there, whisper quietly to another person.
Sugna quietly comes up behind me and whispers in my ears, ‘Bhanwari, its time.’
It is as if I have no emotion left in me anymore. My face is blank. I am completely numb.
Wailing, and howling at funerals was what I did.
But for the first time in my life as a Rudaali, my eyes refused to shed tears.
[Note: This story is about the practice of public mourning or lamenting, among women known as Rudaalis in Northern rural India. Rudaali is literally translated as ‘Weeping Woman’. Their job is to publicly express grief of family members who are not permitted to display emotion due to social status.
The story itself, however, is purely a work of fiction. The story is set in a village in Rajasthan. The dialogues written in English are meant to be in the local dialect.]