When I woke up that morning, I felt the summer before I realized I was up. I had been sleeping on our chhat, the terrace that joined other terraces, the neighbours’, the neighbours’ neighbours till it was all a vast network of terraces and we could believe if we wanted that we shared one giant roof, that boundaries were meant to be hopped over. It was still very early, the sun had not come out. The smells of the morning, a summer morning were all in the air though, slightly sweet, thick with promises of very hot days and uncomfortable nights.
I looked up at the sky. If one could always look up, there were no narrow alleys to be negotiated. But soon I will have to look around. Soon, the day will get hotter, people will start crowding into our house, dholaks will be brought out and the walls will ring with bannas. Ghanshyam Halwai and his troupe of fat men will set up the bhatti and giant kadhais will be put up. Tins and tins of desi ghee will be opened, my mausi will argue with Ghanshyam about the amount of food he is pilfering. Ghanshyam will declare that nobody has dared insult him thus in all the years of cooking. Mausi will concede defeat.
People, more people. Nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, old people, young people, people who will make the journey in trains and rickety buses to get here, to this small, dirty little town. They will bring with them old VIP suitcases and fine silks, cheap perfumes and envelopes with money with my name on them.
The music will not stop. The dholak will give way to shehnai. My father has refused a DJ. Nobody has argued with him. Nobody but I has ever dared to do that. Already he looks defeated, his shoulders drooping just a little more these last few days. He will look at me impassively as he performs multiple poojas, his face giving away nothing of the struggle of the past few days. He will miss my mother.
I will miss my mother. I will miss her so much I will hate her for dying. People will remember her today and they will wipe their eyes as they rue how she could not be a part of my khushi, this elusive happiness that is finally to be mine.
Bechari Gayatri. Poor Gayatri.
My cousins will dance, their slim waists swinging in rhythm to the music. The boys will try to get a peak at them from half-open doors and careless windows before they are chased off. Many a romance will be ignited as long braids are swung over shoulders, dupattas are adjusted and dark eyelashes fluttered. The girls, some of them wearing saris for the first time will never look prettier and they will know it. The boys will strut about, their scrawny chests hiding desperate hearts full of unsaid words.
I will cast my eyes downwards sometime this morning and will not look up till I am asked to do so tonight by my husband.
All that is later. For now I can look skywards and imagine that I am free to soar where I please. I force myself to sit up on the mattress where I have spent the night and look at the supine figure next to me. Dadi, her giant form on its side, looking bigger than ever. I get up quietly and don’t bother to fold my sheets; it might wake Dadi. I make my way slowly through the sleeping forms of my family and relatives, all women who have slept out on the terrace after the tiring festivities of my engagement.
That was yesterday. He had looked at me without smiling, a stranger that I had known intimately for the last three years, had dodged the eagle eyes of my family and teachers and friends to meet at the ruins of the old fort at the edge of our town. Somewhere in the abandoned gardens of the old fort, some poor, unseeing tree was still holding aloft the carved proclamation of our undying love.
Deepak loves Suchitra. 12th May.
I make my way downstairs and stop at the room on the first landing. No one is up yet, not even Baba who has woken up at five each morning for his unending morning walks for years and years. He walks in a circle at the park, round and round, chased by the memories of his dead wife. Round and round. Haunted and tired. Lonely and pensive. Round and round. I peak into his room. He is sleeping on his own bed. His room is untouched by the paraphernalia of the wedding. There are no bundles of silk sarees here, nor thaalis full of mithai, nor suit-pieces wrapped in colourful paper. He is asleep, my father and has been softened by sleep.
I swear on your dead mother I will kill you before I let you marry that lout, Suchi. What will I tell your mother when I see her?
Even then, it was she who looked askance at him from another world. Not the people of our mohalla, not his colleagues from the college, not Dadi. Just her.
I leave him sleeping and make my way down. My throat is hurting for some tea, tea the way Mami makes it, fragrant with cardamom and ginger, heavy and sweet and overcooked. Mami is still asleep on the terrace. It is too early. I wash my hands and face in the kitchen. The ring is a little too tight around my finger. Mami is the one who put the mehendi on my hands and feet, drawing intricate patterns freehand, weaving Deepak’s name into the endless loops of flowery vines. Mami had thrown her rolling pin at me when Mama had caught me with Deepak at the bangle shop and dragged me home.
I took your mother’s place, Suchi. I am the one who has brought you up. They will all say I didn’t do it right. They will say I would not have done the same had you been my own child. Think of that, Suchi.
The air in the kitchen, where Mami spends all her time cooking for our family is still wet with her regrets and recriminations. I make tea and make my way out of the dark kitchen, darkened by years of soot and not whitewashed even for the wedding. The doors are heavy. I release the old linked chain that binds the two doors together and step out, breathing in the air. There are marigold garlands hanging above the door.
I sit down at the first of the three steps that stand between the gulley and our house. It is quiet for a few minutes. Then a tall, slim figure comes out of the house three doors down. She is clad in a sweatshirt and jeans. She is carrying a backpack. I know her. Everyone calls her Gudiya though her real name is Manjushri. She sees me sitting there, on the morning of my wedding and hesitates. Then she walks over.
‘Good morning, didi. How are you?’ she asks in slightly accented Hindi. Already she is thinking in English. I ask about her college. She studies in Delhi, lives in a hostel.
‘Yes, it’s going well. I would have come for your wedding but we are going on a trip today, my classmates and I.’ I nod. I have never been out on a trip with my classmates. Gudiya leaves. We don’t have more than a minute’s worth of conversation left to us, this girl who used to unselfconsciously dance to Hindi film songs in my room, all those summers ago.
My tea is getting cold. I get up and turn to go.
‘Salaam alaikum,’ I hear a voice from behind me. I turn around.
I haven’t seen Syed in years. Gaunt and taller than I remember him. He is standing outside his house, the house opposite ours, his uncle's house. They, Syed and Mohsin used to visit often when we were children. Not anymore. Not since Mohsin ran away.
‘I hear you are getting married,’ he points vaguely at the flowers. I nod, invite him, insist he come.
‘Yes, yes, of course I will come. Bichde sabhi baari-baari, hain na?’ I don’t say anything to that. What is there to say?
‘Have you become a doctor yet?’ I finally ask him.
‘Not yet, not yet,’ he says with some dissatisfaction and takes out a cigarette from his pocket. ‘Don’t tell Mamu.’ He lights up, the end glowing in the reluctant dawn.
‘This is the last year. I have exams in a few days. I got back just two hours back. Couldn’t sleep,’ he says after a few drags. ‘So, why are you up so early? Get some sleep while you can.’ Both of us blush as the unintended meaning comes through.
‘What does your husband do?’ he asks hastily. He has been away too long. No one has told him.
‘He…he is in a family business,’ I answer, halting as the lie makes its way out of me.
‘Oh, I see, I see. Do I know him? What is his name?’
I look at him. There is no knowledge in his eyes, he is not testing me.
‘Deepu. Deepak. Deepak Tyagi.’
He drags on the cigarette again. He doesn’t want to believe it.
‘Love marriage?’ he asks unexpectedly. I look away. He cannot wait to leave now. He crushes the half-finished cigarette under his bathroom slipper. I want to ask him to stay, just like I had wanted Gudiya to stay. He goes back in.
I make my way inside and almost run into Baba. He is wearing his sneakers and his white kurta-pajama. He doesn’t say anything, leaves quietly.
The house is stirring now, preparing to get me married.
There is no turning back now.
I wish there was.