By Ravi Shenoy
The Year of Manmatha [1775 CE]
A man carrying a limp bundle over his shoulder strode across the back garden. Somewhere dogs barked; a cloud passed over the moon, framed by a pair of coconut palms. Crickets hummed in the dark, but nothing stirred in the dark homestead surrounded by paddy fields and coconut palms. Reaching his mare that was tethered nearby, the man flicked the reins, and headed for the shortcut through the Hyder Ghat Pass. The ground trembled as the mare flew in the night up the winding jungle road, finally coming to a dead stop when they reached the sea. She was frothing at the mouth.
Pinpoints of light came from a fort with a battery of eight guns. The wind carried the reek of low tide and rasped through the palms swaying on the beach. The rider led the mare in a slow canter up the hill, to the fort. Passing the sentry at the gate, he dismounted.
Flames from torches of burning leaves sputtered and brightened in the wind.
“Nagamma?” he shouted.
A young matron emerged from a two-storied house. The man took the bundle from his saddle, untied a handkerchief tied around the bundle, and unfolded the blanket.
A girl staggered to her feet. She was shaking from head to foot.
Nagamma stared at the girl.
“How beautiful she is!”
“Don’t be afraid, daughter,” Nagamma said, stroking the girl’s mud-splattered hair.
“What is your name?”
The girl could not speak or think. Her body trembled uncontrollably and she looked as though she was about to cry.
“How old are you?” Nagamma whispered, trying again.
The girl lowered her head, and though she had turned eleven last Diwali, it took all her courage to croak out a reply.
“I-I want to go home.”
“Come with me.” Nagamma led the girl through a hall with carved wooden pillars and a ceiling ornamented with flower patterns into an anteroom. “Are you going to kill me?” the girl whispered.
There was a peal of laughter. “No, no, you are going to be married,”
In the soft glow from the light of oil lamps the girl saw that Nagamma was a tall, robust woman; she would not be able to escape.
“You will get lots and lots of jewels, and saris. Also, lots of sweets to eat.”
The girl’s eyes were dazzled by the brilliant hues of Nagamma’s sari and the amount of gold on her.
Nagamma gushed with a radiant smile, “Then, you will go home.”
The girl gazed at her warily.
“See?” Nagamma showed her a necklace made of gold coins.
The girl eyed the necklace.
“There is more, look at these bangles.”
Even through her tears, the girl’s eyes grew bright. From a blue alcove, Nagamma brought a magenta silk sari with a border woven with images of purple and gold peacocks.
When the girl had washed and stood bedecked in the magenta sari and jewels, Nagamma said approvingly “You will live like a queen, and your family will be so proud of you.” But the girl spun around and darted to the alleyway, she ducked down and picked up a small bundle from the pile of discarded clothes, and tucked it into her sari.
A shadow moved against the wall. The girl turned to see a bearded youth with a turban who had been leaning with his arms folded by the alley wall, watching her. He wore a long close-fitting tunic over tight-fitting trousers.
* * * * *
To the sound of the surf and in the light of the moon, the girl walked slowly into the marriage mandap, followed by Nagamma. The priest recited the wedding prayers. When the antarpat dropped, the girl raised her head. In a trance, she saw a tall erect stranger before her. Round his neck was a tiger claw necklace. Pearl rings hung from his earlobes; the traditional floral coronet was tied to his brow. Nagamma held the girl up in a grip of steel and guided her hands in placing the garland around the man’s neck. Logs crackled in a pit, sparks flew in the night, and a smell of wood smoke rose up. The man and the girl circled the flame seven times. Then the ground swayed beneath the girl, and everything went black.
* * * * *
“Are you awake?” Nagamma’s voice rang from the courtyard.
The girl lay rigid, blinking in the blazing sunlight. “Where am I?” she wondered.
The other side of the bed was empty. It had not been slept in. Her hands touched the black beads around her neck. The bangles of gold and glass still clinked and bit into her arms. The nose ring shaped in the form of a mango flower lay on the pallet. She reached for the bundle of sagargoti seeds at her waist, the ones she had salvaged before entering the marriage mantap. Last night she had been in the back garden of her family home rinsing her mouth after dinner… it was the last thing she remembered. As if in a dream, she had been married. She could run away, she thought. But, they had gone round the fire seven times, the same husband for seven lifetimes.
“You should take a bath.” Nagamma said striding into the room. Her long tresses were wet; her dark face glowed with strength and determination. The girl wanted to tell Nagamma that she was supposed to wed her father’s sister’s 15-year-old son just after this year’s Tulsi Vivaha. Instead tears trickled down her cheeks. In a blur, she saw a silver tray on a ledge holding betel leaves, vermilion, turmeric and dew-capped flowers –for the goddess.
“After your bath, you will visit the temple in the village.” Nagamma said.
* * * * *
Jiwaba stepped into the temple tank to bathe. Omar, Omar, Omar. Why did his first thought every morning have to be of Omar? Jiwaba closed his eyes, held his breath, and dove into the cold green water. Air bubbles rose to the surface. They were two men with one soul, he thought. Even so, a drop of milk pollutes water. A Brahmin should dread pollution more than death.
“I was born a Musallman, but after meeting you, I am neither a Hindu nor a Musallman.” Omar once told him.
“For that matter, what kind of a Brahmin am I?” He had asked.
Jiwaba recited the Gayatri mantra a hundred and eight times and offered water to the sun. The decision had been made for him. Unsought, a girl-wife had entered his life.
She was a pretty one, he conceded. There would have sons to light his funeral pyre and carry on his name and inherit his lands. Wasn’t that the point of marriage? Jiwaba thought and thought as he swam back and forth across the tank.
* * * * *
The bell rang in the dim interior of the temple. In the flicker of the oil lamps the newlyweds could see the image of the goddess covered with garlands of jasmine and hibiscus. Jiwaba and the girl set down their offerings. The priest intoned mantras and poured a spoonful of holy water into their outstretched palms.
Afterwards, Jiwaba rested on a stone bench outside the temple. The girl sat beside him. They could overhear some merchants gossiping in the temple square.
Hyder Ali had entered into a treaty with Raghunath Rao, the Peshwa, one of the merchants informed his peers, and Hyder Ali had acknowledged Raghunath Rao as the sole head of the Maratha state—
The Nizam and the Marathas were at war and the English were watching and waiting—
It was only a matter of time before Hyder Ali increased the tax on land—
“What else is new?” another asked, hawking up phlegm and spitting into the distance.
“And up there,” one pointed, looking up towards the fort, “robber barons, if you ask me.”—
There was a muffled laugh.
“Be careful, now. Walls have ears.”—
“Say what you will, we were better off when we were ruled by the Sondekar kings.”
“Yes, but he ran away. Eleven years ago, Sadashiva Rao, our Sonda king, fled with the Treasury gold to Goa. Living in Ponda like a son-in-law of the Portuguese! “—
“No matter who is in power, try not to draw too much attention to you,” an old man advised quietly.
They all agreed.
“But do you think there will be war?”—
A voice rang out. “If there is a war, our fields will be laid waste, even an owl and bat will not remain, and who knows where we will all have to flee?”—
Everyone nodded darkly.
The girl reached for the sagargoti seeds at her waist.
“Stop playing with those seeds!” Jiwaba’s words hit the girl like a whip lash. The merchants turned to look at them.
Jiwaba and the girl returned to the fort in silence. Her mother’s voice came to her. “Your husband is your god.” Watching Jiwaba–an adult who moved with long strides, always ten paces ahead of her—the girl thought that he looked like a fearsome god.
* * * * *
They entered the courtyard of Nagamma’s house, which the girl learned was called a manzil. A dark-skinned man rested against a bolster in the courtyard. Even though the man’s beard was almost white, his muscles were like iron bands. He was pondering something. Jiwaba and the girl joined the small knot of people standing on either side of Najli Naik.
“I gave this little one such a scare. Forgive me, huh.” He folded his hands and touched his ears. He had gold rings on every finger.
The girl recognized the voice. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe, and her legs turned to water. Drawing the end of her sari close, she noticed that a scar ran down his left cheek. Two mace bearers stood on either side.
Jiwaba grabbed the girl’s elbow and motioned her to bow to the man.
Najli Naik was silent for a moment.
“But tell me, have I not found you a jewel of a husband? A diamond!”
He turned to Jiwaba and raised an arm. “Now, family. Samsara.” He drew out the vowels making it sound like a life sentence. He watched the girl’s face with interest. “May you be the mother of eight sons! I may not be a Brahmin, but as an elder, I bless you.”
Then he motioned to Jiwaba. “Write,’ he gestured. “This message is from Jamadar Najli Naik, the commander of Tipu Saheb’s regiment in Kanara. Your daughter is safe. There is no need to worry. She is now the wife of a worthy man from your own community, Jiwaba Rao. They were married last night with proper Vaidic ritual. Jiwaba Rao is my bakshi, the chief accountant of my regiment, and for his services received the grant of the village of Gudehalli. They will arrive in Hisnad soon.”
After Najli Naik gave it his seal, the message was given to a soldier. “Take this to the Brahmin homestead, north of the hamlet of Hisnad.”
The girl was overjoyed when she learned that they would be leaving for Hisnad shortly. She remembered hearing about Najli Naik. Everyone one in the region knew his name. Though he had begun his career as a mere soldier in the army of the Raja of Bednur, after Hyder Ali took over the raja’s kingdom, Najli Naik had risen to be commander of one of Tipu’s regiments, in just eight years.
Najli Naik flicked an anxious glance in Jiwaba’s direction. “I had one desire to see our Jiwaba married. Nearly thirty years old and still not married!” He shook his head. “That was not good. But, yesterday, he fulfilled my desire. I am happy about that.”
“Jiwaba was just a stripling.” Najli Naik addressed the girl. “Not even the shadow of a beard on his cheeks when he came to me. Parents died in the plague,” he explained. “But a very intelligent Brahmin! The best!” He shook his head in admiration. “Reads and writes in three languages–Farsi, Kannada and Marathi! And keeps meticulous accounts in the Modi script. The best! “
“Now Omar has to get married?” He looked coyly at a bearded dark-eyed youth. The girl recognized him from the previous night when he had stood against a wall. Omar shrugged and looked down, scratching his beard. He glanced at Jiwaba whose ears reddened.
“Samsara and dharma!” The Naik said wagging a finger at Jiwaba as the Naik retreated into his house followed by two mace bearers.
* * * * *
On the second night when she saw Jiwaba enter the room, the girl shrank against the wall. Her throat tightened and a sob erupted. In the wavering light of the lamp, Jiwaba hung his angvastra, a length of cloth that covered his bare chest, on a hook on the wall. He removed his turban. Seated on the bed, he glanced at her. The girl dropped her eyes, her face heating up. Then, facing the other way, Jiwaba fell asleep.
The girl lay motionless on the bed, staring fixedly at the swirls of hair on her husband’s back and arms. She could feel the body heat coming from his sleeping back. Most of his words had gone over her head, save the knowledge that he was an orphan. “He has no family.” Her heart welled with tenderness. “He has no one.” She remembered her mother’s frequent refrain, “One day, you will go to your husband’s home. What will your mother-in-law say?” or “Sooner or later, every girl has to marry and go to her in-laws’ home.” She wanted to ask, “Will you be going to war, soon?” but speech eluded her.
That night, the girl had a dream. In the dream, she walked up the steps to her home in Hisnad wearing her wedding sari and the mango flower nose ring. Her mother was waiting in the courtyard. The girl held her mother tight, weeping. Soon, everyone crowded around: her father, her six younger brothers and sisters all dressed in finery, her widowed aunt, and her grandmother. They appeared happy and excited to see her. They proceeded in great haste to the wedding mandap in the courtyard. The pipers were playing. The drummers were drumming. The antarpat was raised. Jiwaba stood there with the coronet of flowers, holding a garland of marigolds and jasmine. When the partition dropped, Jiwaba’s face registered a happy anticipation. On the other side stood Omar, there were tears splashing down his face.
* * * * *
On the third day, they began the journey to Hisnad. After a short visit, Jiwaba would return to the garrison in the fort. A palanquin was waiting. Armed guards with matchlocks would join them when they reached the track two or three kos up the Hyder Ghat Pass. Jiwaba entered the palanquin. He removed his headgear and gave it to the girl, who followed quietly. She was happy because they were returning to her family and her home.
The early afternoon sun was behind a cloud when they began their journey. A cobalt sea stretched to the west, long breakers creasing the surface. The jungle-covered foothills of the Sahyadri Mountains to the east appeared purple. When the palanquin reached the beginning of the jungle, some two kos outside the village, a hoot-owl screeched. Jiwaba asked the palanquin bearers to stop.
“Stay here,” he said to the girl. “I’ll be back soon.” He removed his cummerbund, and walked into the trees. There was another screech. Soon an answering hoot came from deeper within the jungle.
The girl waited for a long time. The wind ruffled the flaps of the palanquin, blowing grit and dust inside. The palanquin bearers, settled in the shade of a mango tree, pulled out their pouches of tobacco and lime. The girl saw that they had stopped in a clearing surrounded by tall trees and undergrowth. Had her husband abandoned her in the jungle? She opened the bundle at her waist and played with the sagargoti seeds. She touched her black beads; Jiwaba’s face hovering in her mind’s eye. “For a woman her husband is her god.” She stepped out of the palanquin. Birds trilled high in the trees. Sunlight speckled a dirt path. The palanquin bearers stared after her.
“Little Amma, don’t go too far. Otherwise, we will have to come looking for you.”
The wind ruffled through the leaves and blew fragrant jasmine blossoms at the girl’s feet. She plucked the blooms from the overhanging branches. There were so many flowers on fronds and branches, on either side of the jungle trail. Entranced, she ambled deeper into the glade where the ground tilted up. The loose end of her sari overflowed with flowers. Some way up the slope, the land fell away in a gully. Through the leafage, she saw two figures with their arms around each other, stretched side by side in a cave. Narrowing her eyes she recognized her husband and Omar. Their clothes were in a heap at their feet.
The flowers dropped from the pallav of her sari. The girl fled, hurtling like an arrow down the path. She fell into the palanquin and lay face down, her heart thudding against her ribs. When she could breathe again, she incessantly flung each sagargoti high in the air, catching it in her trembling hands until her mind quieted.
When she heard Jiwaba enter, she buried the seeds under a cushion, covered herself completely with a blanket, and pretended to be asleep. For some time, Jiwaba sat with his head between his hands. Through the blanket, the girl looked at her husband. He no longer seemed like the fearsome god.
Jiwaba became aware of a bundle lying on the cushions. It was just the girl. His wife, he remembered. Studying her briefly, he had a vague feeling that something had shifted, but he couldn’t tell just what.
He put his head out abruptly and shouted, “To Hisnad!”
The four palanquin bearers raised the palanquin and started back up the Pass.
Ravi Shenoy won the first prize in the 2007 Katha contest for her short story “The Sacrifice.” “Deus ex Machina” appeared in the online journal, Sugar Mule. A former librarian, she has been a reviewer for Library Journal since 2007. She is the Reviews Editor for Jaggery: a Desilit Journal of Arts and Literature.