Aazadi

Aazadi
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Knowledge is better than mere ritualistic practice

Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 12, Verse 12

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It was the sound of temple bells that woke him up. It was a rainy day, the leaves of the peepal tree outside quivered like earrings adding to the sound of bells. It was music. But he wanted silence. He came to his room alone to seek peace for some time amidst the noises around the house. But the Gods didn’t offer him even that. He sat on his charpai and its jute strings bent a little with the weight of his body. He wrapped his turban around his head and wiped his sweat with the end of its tail.

His wife came into the room, “you’re sitting here alone killing mosquitoes when there is so much work to do?”

He looked at his wife. She was wearing her new saree, the one he bought for her last Diwali but there was nothing but exhaustion on her face. He realized he must be looking just the same in his new Kurta.

“I just came to get some money.” Such ceremonies were expensive and he kept running out of his cash. “Is Jwala ready?” he asked her.

“Not yet. It takes time for a bride to get ready,” Malti replied.

“How is she?” he asked even though he very well knew the answer.

“How do you think she is?” she taunted and left the room.

He went and sat again on the charpoy, this time looking out the window. He heard the sound of a peacock somewhere nearby. It wasn’t raining too hard anymore, it was just a light drizzle. People came out of their houses now to do what they were supposed to be doing. He saw a man standing outside with a handcart selling hot jalebis. He remembered how much Jwala loved the hot jalebis. He wanted to go out and buy some for her but then realized that she wouldn’t have enough time to eat them today.

The rain brought him the memories of the night Jwala was born. He clearly remembered it, it was raining that night as well. The mid-wife hung her head in shame for she helped deliver a daughter instead of a son. When Malti found out it was a girl, she exclaimed, “Haye Ram.” Oh God. The ladies of the neighborhood who had come to their house to congratulate them expressed their sympathy and inwardly wished their family would never suffer the same fate. It was Panna who laughed loudly and congratulated Malti.  “Mubarak Malti. She looks like a tiny doll,” he said. Malti just stared at the bundle kept in her lap.

Panna had always wanted a daughter. Before she was born, it hadn’t rained in a very long time and his wheat farms were drying. The soil of Shikohabad was fertile but without the rain, only a miracle could save the farmers’ crops. Mughal rulers were conspiring with the East India company and increased the taxes substantially. Farmers were farming not for themselves, they were farming for Victorian mills in England. If his crops had failed, his sustenance would have been in jeopardy. He would have had to mix poison in their khichri and both Malti and him would sleep peacefully for an eternity. After Jwala was born, his family prospered. He acquired more land to grow his crops. Slowly, he even started serving in the village council as the Panch and became one of the most important man in the village. All because of Jwala.

But it rained the night Jwala was born. His wheat farms flourished and earned him a good profit, much more than he had expected. Jwala brought to her family prosperity. His profits from his wheat farms just didn’t pull him out of poverty, they brought him luxuries. He bowed down in the feet of Lord Shiva in the temple nearby and understood Jwala was the gift of Lord Shiva for his years of meditation and prayers.

For her father, Jwala was not an ordinary girl. She was like fire in a cold, dark night. When thinking of a name for their daughter, he didn’t have to spend too much time. The little doll deserved no other name than Jwala. She was fire.

Jwala was the perfect daughter right from the beginning. She would never cry in the middle of the night and would let her parents peacefully sleep while Malti cried silently at night. She had always desired a baby boy, she visited Lord Ram in his temple every Wednesday and prayed for a boy. She tied a red cord around the old peepal tree, as the village priest had suggested her. She visited all three astrologers in her village to make sure she was going to have a boy. Where did Jwala drop from? She felt it was an insult. What position would she have in the society now? A girl! Whenever Jwala smiled at her, Malti felt she was sneering at her.

Panna loved her daughter more than anything else in the world. He thought being gifted a daughter by God was a sign. He visited Lord Shiva every Monday and promised if a girl is born, he would distribute laddoos in the entire village. She was so special to him that he wanted to save her from the evil spirits. He made Jwala wear two silver bangles in each hand to ward off the evil spirits. He tied a Taweez around her neck that would bring her good luck. He only realized twenty years later that those things don’t work.

 

A knock on the door and he was reluctantly brought back to the present. It was his nephew Bholu. “Kaka, Pandit ji is here. He is waiting for you outside.”

“I am coming,” he said while pinching his forehead.

“Everything’s well, kaka? Do you need help with anything?” Bholu couldn’t see his uncle worried.

Panna forced a smile, “Everything is well.”

He followed Bholu and went outside his room to face the crowd. His house wasn’t very big but somehow still many people managed to fit in his drawing room. A carpet was laid down the floor where the women sat and waited while the men stood outside waiting in the verandah. He felt the force of  all the eyes on him, the eyes of his friends, neighbors and relatives who he hadn’t spoken to him in a very long time. He tried to ignore them and walked past them to talk to the priest.

He saw the priest standing outside in the verandah, “Pandit ji, do you have everything that you need?” He avoided looking down at the floor.

“Yes, yes. Even the rain has stopped now and we can perform all the rituals and ceremonies without any trouble. We are all just waiting for your daughter now. ”

Panna nodded.

He saw the band standing outside the house with their huge drums wearing bright red Kurtas. He went outside the house to meet the leader of the band, “Are you ready?”

“We are ready, we’ll start playing as soon as the procession starts.” Panna nodded again. He had heard them play once before in his life, he was really happy last time.

Sahib, we had to ask you something,” the leader of the band asked. “When will we get our payment?”

He took out some money from his pocket and handed it to him.

He couldn’t be around people anymore and so he went to the cowshed and sat in the corner. He felt more comfortable in the company of his cows than people. The cows didn’t ask him questions or demanded money from him. They silently munched their hay. A little calf came and stood near Panna. He scratched its ear and remembered how Jwala would play with calves all the time in her childhood. Jwala was always a naughty child. With two red ribbons in her braids and numerous bangles on her arms, she would run around the entire neighborhood throughout the day going to every neighbor’s house. People couldn’t resist offering her food. Jwala didn’t know how to say no and so even when she was full, she would continue eating. She would eat so much and whenever she would return back home, she would vomit out all of it. Her mother was tired of her doing that and once in a while she received a good beating. But Jwala would go to everyone’s house again next day to eat all the food.

Kaka, Jwala jiji is ready,” it was Bholu again who had somehow found his hiding place.

“I am coming,” he said. But he wasn’t ready yet so he went to the small temple opposite his house. He didn’t bow down in the feet of God. He looked at the small statue of Lord Shiva in front of him and the blue God stared back at him. He questioned, “what did I do to deserve this? Did I not visit your temple every Monday? Did I not fast every week? Did I not feed Brahmins regularly?” There was no reply.

He went back to his house dreading the eyes of the strangers but no one was looking at him now. Everyone was looking at Jwala. She was outside her room and the anklets on her feet filled the silence as she walked. She was looking somewhere far away with a blank expression on her face, the same expression he saw on the face of Lord Shiva. Some of the bangles on her arms were broken and her nose ring was stuck in her hair. Her dupatta was slipping away from her head. She was a mess but no one bothered to fix the way she looked. There wasn’t much anybody could do now. It was over.

Her lehenga was the only thing that looked as shiny. It swirled as she walked. He remembered the day he bought the lehenga. He had invited Tularam, the most able tailor in the village and spent a fortune on it.

“Why are you spending so much money that I will only wear for one day, Bapu?” Jwala had asked.

“You are my only daughter and I have dreamt of your wedding ever since you were born. You are the Panch’s daughter, everyone would be looking at you. I want you to be the most beautiful bride this village has ever seen.” And beautiful she looked. The wedding was a huge affair in the village, it was all the villagers could talk about for months. Every little girl in the village wanted to look like Jwalai jiji when they would marry. And they wanted a groom like Ramesh.

Ramesh was the district collector, a job every man in the village drooled for.  The groom’s family was respectable in the village and hadn’t even demanded too much dowry at the time of the wedding. He was a Lodhi Rajput, the same caste as theirs. He was the kind of man every father wanted their daughter to marry. He was tall and though he had pox marks on his cheeks, he looked better than most men. When Ramesh met Pannalal for the first time, he touched his feet to show respect. Who in this day and age have such respect for elders? Panna had thought.

While bidding farewell on the morning after the wedding day, Jwala hugged her father and sobbed. Panna couldn’t cry in front of everyone, but at night he cried endlessly in his bed facing away from Malti. When everyone asked the next day why his eyes were swollen, he lied that he had an eye infection. But of course everyone knew what it was.

Panna never thought he would see his daughter in the same attire again. Panna couldn’t stop himself from crying now. He looked around to see if anyone had noticed but everyone’s eyes were on Jwala. He wiped his tears with the end of his turban. Malti was by Jwala’s side holding her by the waist and leading her out the room. Everyone stood up and started walking out to the verandah where Ramesh’s corpse lay.

The women started wailing now, Malti was one of them. Panna hated that noise. The groom’s brothers picked his pyre on their shoulders. Jwala stepped on the seconds pyre and her cousins picked that one, Bholu being one of them. The priest chanted some holy verses and everyone started walking towards the bank of Yamuna where the final rites were going to take place while chanting “Sati mata ki jai.” Hail Goddess Sati.

Panna walked at the end because he wanted to avoid talking to anyone. He saw a man who kept turning around to look at him. He couldn’t understand why and then it suddenly hit him. It was Raghunath, the same man who had come to ask him for help just last month. The last time he came to meet him he fell down on Panna’s feet and cried warm tears on them, “Sahib please, please save my daughter. She is just a child. She is afraid of even getting too close to a candle, how will she burn herself in the fire?”

“You fool. How can you even think of saying such a thing? This is her destiny, no one can change your daughter’s destiny. We can’t tamper with ancient customs,” he told him.

“Please sahib. You are a Panch, you can do anything. We will not even let her step outside the house. We will just hide her in our hut.”

“It’s her kismet. What chance do we stand against kismet? Why do you want to bring disgrace upon our society? Your daughter shall go to heaven, and afterwards reappear on earth, and be married to a very rich man. The prayers and imprecations of a Sati are never uttered in vain; the great gods themselves cannot listen to them unmoved.  Don’t you want a better life for your daughter?”

Sahib,” was all Raghunath could say before Pannalal interrupted him.

“We live in this society, we have to follow the ideals. A country without customs and traditions is like a body without soul. How can you disregard our traditions? Do you want to enrage our ancestors and Gods?”

His own words echoed in his mind. Now that it was his own daughter who was going through this, he just wanted to throw away all the religious customs and save his daughter. He felt as if he was a fish thrown outside the water.

The walk towards Yamuna was an hour long but Panna felt as if only ten seconds passed by. Throughout the walk, Panna’s eyes were on her daughter’s pyre. On the bank of Yamuna, they kept both the pyres next to each other on the wet ground. People weren’t chanting anymore and surrounded both the pyres forming a circle. Panna saw it only from afar, he didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. He half wanted to jump in the fire himself. He didn’t want to live in a world where he couldn’t save his own daughter. He looked at the groom’s pyre. Wasn’t it just yesterday that she was happy in her nine-month old newly married life? Wasn’t it just last night Ramesh was killed in a car accident altering everything in Jwala’s life?

Something happened to Panna in that moment. He wasn’t in this world anymore, he didn’t know what was happening, he didn’t know what he was doing. His mind stopped working. He was looking at what was happening but he wasn’t seeing anything. He saw the priest say something. Bholu held Jwala’s hand and made her sit on the pyre of her dead husband. She was still looking somewhere far away with the black expression. She lay down on Ramesh’s body wrapping her arms around his neck.

The priest gave more instructions and the groom’s brother was made to tie the rope around the two bodies, both dead in their own way. Panna turned around. He couldn’t see it anymore. But he imagined the groom’s brother with a burning wood in his hand. He imagined him setting the pyre on the fire, burning both of them. He couldn’t think of anything anymore, he couldn’t remember any more memories from the past. The crowd started chanting again.

Sati mata ki Jai.

Sati mata ki Jai.

Sati mata ki Jai.

It was the only thing that was going through his mind. He felt he was never going to get this noise out of his head. The noise around had taken over him. But he did. Something else took its place. Screams. Jwala’s screams. The screams tore through him like a dagger to his heart. It was the loudest noise he had ever heard in his life, it broke whatever was left him. It was the only thing he could hear even when he had gone away and only silence surrounded him. It was the only thing he could hear till the day he died.

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About Vidhipssa Mohan

Vidhipssa Mohan was born and raised in India before she moved to Scotland to study creative writing. She loves weaving history and politics in her fictional works. She has fallen in love with Scotland and is looking for ways to never leave the country without breaking the law. She also loves reading nice emails.

Vidhipssa Mohan was born and raised in India before she moved to Scotland to study creative writing. She loves weaving history and politics in her fictional works. She has fallen in love with Scotland and is looking for ways to never leave the country without breaking the law. She also loves reading nice emails.

One comment

  1. Rakesh Kumar Sharma says:

    Great Story. Lovely illustration of Father Daughter relationship. Some cultural practices being followed by people in Indian societies are depicted well.

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