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She sat in a corner. Her eyes fixed at some uncertain point in the infinity; the dilapidated half wooden and half tin door ajar, affording her the view of the shabby street outside and a partial view of the smoky sky. In between, her gnarled hands adjusted her sari, her blouse and the tightly braided hair at the back. Kashmiri Pundit women in the valley put on a long pheran reaching up to the ankles, with a cotton cummerbund strapped around the waist and a headgear called tarag, with a long cotton tail reaching down well below the waist. Having been forced to flee from the valley by the mujahidin, her family like many others from among the miniscule Kashmiri Pundit community had had to take refuge in the torrid and bushy foothills of Jammu. To adapt to the cultural mores of this cheerless place they had to abandon their traditional Kashmiri attire. She was obviously not very comfortable in this attire. The tin roof above her sizzled making her perspire profusely. She wiped beads of perspiration from her face and her brow again and yet again, in an irritatingly singsong rhythm.

Before her eyes she swam past memories of her chequered past. A smile broke on her weather beaten face as she remembered how as a child she would plop herself on her father’s lap while her two elder brothers looked askance. She was the only daughter of her parents. In the days when no one even talked of family planning, her parents had only three children, she and her two elder brothers. Being the youngest child in the family, she was the pampered one, particularly by her father, who regarded her as his third son. A no-nonsense man, her father was feared by one and all. Every muscle in his face was taught and strung up. Not only children but even adults had rarely ever seen those muscles relax to let a smile break out. But not so with Leela. He not only laughed and played with her but even let her take liberties with him. Her mother protested against this pampering. But, with the support of her indulgent father, no one could bully her into attending to daily chores. Those were indeed golden days.

And then one winter, as the snow piled high in the compound outside, with all thoroughfares blocked, her mother winced and tossed for medical help. With only a compounder available in the neighbourhood, who knew nothing more than administering injections, she breathed her last. She took away with her all the smiles of her life. Father stopped playing and laughing with her. He still showed solicitude for her, though. The depth of his creased brow deepened. He was worried, it was clear. The one question that kept bothering him was about the marriages of his two sons. Who would agree to give their daughters in marriage to a family of bachelors? She stopped pestering her father, trying to be helpful wherever she could. Her worried father looked on, with an affectionate glance at these attempts of hers.

As the snow melted and life sprung back on the denuded trees, she got busy with the kitchen garden in the backyard. It was fun to see the rose bushes come alive with roses of many colours. She liked their fragrance very much. So she would inch close to each one, caress them with her hands and then bury her face deep in them to breathe in their fragrance. The marigolds had sprung up too. They were in bunches all around. Their flaring scarlet red around the somber yellow had always stilled her heart in a blanket of peace. She plucked each, one by one for the thokur kuth, the prayer room. Seeing that they were sufficient enough, she carried the lot back into the house.

It was then that she noticed Roga Buoy, Brother Raghunath, their family priest. He was having an argument with her father. She could overhear her name being spoken in between. After he had left, her father called her to him. He explained how he loved her dearly and would never have liked her to go away from his house. But then she was a girl. And every girl had to one day leave her father’s home. That was the practice in the community and no one could change that. Leela was still too young to understand why she had to leave her father’s home and why. Her father explained that when a girl got married she had to leave for her husband’s home. Then, it came upon her like a flash. She had seen her elder cousin leave home after her marriage. But, still she asked. Couldn’t she stay longer at home? Couldn’t the marriage be postponed? And what about her brothers? They were older than her. Shouldn’t they be married first?

Then her father came up with the real story. She was to be given away in marriage so that her elder brother could get married. She was to be married to the brother of the girl who was to be married to her elder brother. Her father explained how it would be difficult to find a bride for her brother without this arrangement. And as Leela was like a son to him, he expected her to bail out the family. Seeing her father deeply worried, she readily gave her consent. She didn’t like the sight of her father worried about anything. He had given her so much love and affection. Couldn’t she do so little as this for her dear father? She scarcely realized then that she had walked into a trap laid by destiny for her.

The proposal had come from a family in the neighbouring village of Zainapore. They wanted Leela for their young and handsome son, who worked in the revenue department at Rawalpindi. Leela’s father had simply brushed it aside. But, they would not give up so easily. They wanted to know why Leela’s father was rejecting such a good match. Her father made it clear to them that this marriage could not happen as long as his sons did not get married. And besides, they did not have much land too, befitting the daughter of a big landlord like him. Understanding his concerns, they proposed a reciprocal arrangement. They would give their daughter in marriage to his eldest son for securing the hand of his daughter for their son. Her father liked the idea. But, he wasn’t sure how Leela would take it. Also, he had an element of self-doubt too. Was he doing the right thing by tying in his daughter’s destiny to that of his son’s? It was this self-doubt that the family priest was trying to dispel when Leela saw them arguing. The family priest was impressing upon her father the suitability of the match by enumerating the good qualities of her suitor.

These were the times when child marriages were common. There was a gap of about fifteen years between Leela and her groom. She enjoyed the pomp and show of marital ritual as if it were a game. But when she reached her in-laws’ place, she realized her mistake. For the first time in her life, she suffered restrictions, abuses and taunts. Her mother-in-law starved her of the daily minimum ration of food too, taunting her for eating too much. And then befell another calamity on her. The country won independence from the British, but not without partition. The riots that followed the partition swallowed her husband too. She waited for him to return. He did not. Nor was there any news of him. As years piled on years, she lost hope of ever seeing him again.

In the beginning, her father came to see her off and on. But, as time wore on, his visits became infrequent and then they stopped. Her brothers seemed to have forgotten that she existed. Alone and without any support from her parental family, her in-laws turned her into a kind of family servant. She slaved for them day and night, considering it to be God’s will. At times, when the pain broke its boundaries, she would cry, muffling her sobbing in the stone hard pillow. It hurt to see that the father who had loved her so much and the brothers who had run to her for help always should have forgotten her like a withered flower in the garden.

And then the tide of time took another turn. She was washing utensils on the river front when she saw a man staring at her from a distance. She adjusted her clothes instinctively. The man was approaching her now with sure and firm steps. She panicked. Who was this man? Why was he coming towards her? As he reached close to her, he stopped again. Leela had stopped looking at him. She had drawn herself into a huddle out of fear. And then she heard a familiar voice, ‘Leela!’ She looked up, the dish in her hands slipped into the river and tears long pent up welled up rolling down in a torrent. Before she could swoon, he rushed to gather her in his arms.

For once, life seemed to take a turn for the better. Back after a miraculous escape from his captors in Pakistan, her husband moved with her to Srinagar. He gave her every reason to be happy. Competent and caring, he moved up the social ladder very soon. The news spread like wild fire. Her father and her brothers were back to claim the bonds of kinship. Like the non-discriminating mother Earth, she welcomed them back with open arms. As the years flew with the wispy clouds in the clear skies of Srinagar, she bore two sons and two daughters. They moved into a plush new house in the upcoming locality at Bemina. She planted roses and marigolds in the garden, where she would sit for hours on end on the lush green lawn, chatting with her children and the guests. The scars of the past seemed to disappear.

The family home at Bemina bustled today with activity as the eldest son, who had opened a photography studio at the busy Lal Chowk was getting married. Leela was all bedecked with jewelry and new glimmering clothes. The family priest had also arrived. She waited for her husband to return from the Civil Secretariat. The sun headed for its daily execution in the distant horizon. It went up in scarlet flames before it disappeared from view. As the shadows of the evening lengthened, her heart grew restless. Something was amiss. She paced up and down the lawn, while the guests frolicked and cheered each other. Her eyes were fastened to the gate, waiting when his hands would clasp its latch to open it. There was commotion outside. She hurried to the gate. Holding on to the gate as it opened, she had a last glimpse of her husband draped in blood, with bullet holes tearing through his shirt.

The sudden sight of her mortally wounded husband had made her swoon. She scarcely recovered from this trauma fully. The sight of her dead husband and the cries of Batov czaliva, raliva ya galiva (Pundits flee, convert or perish) continued to haunt her to this day as she sat in her one-room ‘migrant camp’ tenement.

‘Grandma, grandma,’ a young boy kept pulling at the hem of her sari.
Leela woke up from her reverie.
‘Yes, my son.’
‘Can I have an ice candy?’
‘Sure, son. You can,’ saying so she went inside to fetch a five rupee note.
As she watched her grandson relish the ice candy, she heaved a sigh.

About the Author

Ravi DharA doctorate in English from the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, India, Ravi Dhar has taught in various Indian universities in India and the Ethiopian Civil Services College, Addis Ababa. A keen student of Indian philosophy and Integral Yoga, he blends the knowledge of linguistics, literature, communication, commerce, philosophy and mysticism in his perception of the dynamics of human life. A keen researcher, he has published and presented papers in the areas of Modern English Novel, Communication Policy, Online Communication, Human Rights and Development Economics. He has traveled to Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Ethiopia and Sweden. Presently, he is Professor of Mass Communication at Jagannath International Management School, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, India, of which he also happens to be the Director. Besides, he has been editing an international journal of communication Studies, Mass Communicator, for the last four years. He has come out with two books so far, one on Indian Management: Theory and Practice and another book on Global Perspectives on Media in the Swirl. He is also a poet, having published poems in journals and newspapers published in the Indian subcontinent. He believes in the creative evolution of humankind, a faith that he has inherited from his Guru, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.