The Only Way
by Prema Sastri
I still remember the day Varsha came to Bhagawan Krupa as a bride. Bhagawan Krupa was the house next door. It was a large balconied affair, with an array of steps to the front door. It was up these the young girl was now proceeding. The stairs had been decorated with flowers and rangoli patterns. Silk saris were wound around the banisters. The shehnai and drums were in full sound.
Umesh Bhandari went ahead, as his bride followed. She was wearing a red sari embroidered in zari. Gold chains fell from her neck. Her hands were covered with glittering bangles. Diamond earrings dangled from her ear.
Many heads peered out from windows to catch the sight. Umesh Bhandari was a forty year old bachelor who lived in our street. His taking a wife was the main topic of interest for all the ladies in the neighbourhood. Afterwards, they compared notes.
“She seems too thin”
“She has long hair"
“She is very young”.
No two versions agreed The curiosity was never satisfied. The young bride did not step out of the hose.
This was not surprising. They were a newly married couple. Shyness and a wish for privacy were only to be expected.
One day I went across with a plate of rasogullas and sandesh I had prepared. Jodh Bai my maid works in both houses, and had warned her mistress of my visit. When I went across Varsha greeted me politely and touched my feet. She gave the sweets to Jodh Bai to keep inside, and lapsed into silence.
The drawing room was full of gilded sofa sets,with velvet upholstery, such as one sees in Hindi films. She sat on one of them, her hands clasped, looking fixedly at the floor. As I sat across from her she looked very young and small, in the depths of the chair. She did not look more than sixteen. She had delicate features, warm brown skin and dark eyes that would not look at me. She replied to my questions with a nod, or a shake of the head. She seemed to be afraid.
I did not think too much about it. Most brides are nervous. However, I did not repeat the visit. Nor did she come to my house. It was from Jodh Bai that I got a picture of her background.
She came from a small village in Rajasthan, and had no parents. She had been living with her uncle who got her married to Umesh paying a huge dowry.
I knew little about Umesh, except that he was tall and broad shouldered and was in the textile business. More details emerged from Jodh Bai.
He drank. He played cards every night. Varsha was kept awake taking care of the needs of the card players.
One day Jodh Bai ran into my house in a state of agitation.
“Memsahib, last night Sahib pushed Varshaji in a room with one of the men”.
“Shall I go to her?”
“She has locked herself in her room”.
Worse was to come.
“Amma, she is locked in with three men. Amma, I saw a whip and knives stained with blood in the room”.
Jodh Bai was prone to exaggerate. Still, I feared there was a great deal of truth in what she said.
“We must do something”.
“What can we do? We are women”.
I looked at Jodh Bai. Her impassive face told me nothing. Had Umesh been using her all these years? He had brought her from his home town, Jaipur. She lived in the servant’s quarters of the house. That was all I knew.
Should I inform the police? They would not believe me. A terrified Varsha would deny anything was wrong.
I took to loitering around the backyard. Sometimes I saw Varsha putting out clothes to dry. I saw welts on her arms, and blood on the back of her blouse. Seeing me watching she hurried into the house.
Late one night I heard Umesh shouting
“I am not going to bring up your bastard.”
A door was banged shut. There was silence.
The next morning I saw Varsha near the tap. She stumbled as she poured water on her face. She was vomiting and holding her stomach.
“Varsha” I called out. "I am coming."
At the sound of my voice she turned her back on me and hobbled inside. I felt I would endanger her by interfering in her life. I feared for her, but did not know what to do.
Months later Jodh Bai filled in the missing pieces, as she washed vessels.
“Behenji had a
miscarriage. I threw the foetus in the dustbin.”
Her matter of fact acceptance of the situation shocked me.
“She needs a doctor. She needs care. Is there nowhere she can go?”
Jodhbai poured water on a frying pan.
“Amma, she has no one. Her uncle took over her father`s property after getting her married. His wife used to starve the girl. She cannot go back. She cannot step out of the house. There is no way she can leave.”
“What can I do for her?”
Jodh Bai was silent.
I took to sending food through Jodh Bai; khichri, curds, puris and salads. It gave me a new interest in life. I was not married and living alone. My father had left me and my brother a small house in Bangalore near the Ulsoor lake. My brother, a doctor in the air force, rarely visited. I had retired after years of teaching. My relatives were in Calcutta. Bangalore remained a strange city to me. Except during the Durga Puja festival I did not meet other Bengalis.
As the weeks passed I was happy to see Varsha walking normally. One day I saw her sitting on a stone in the courtyard eating the curd rice I had sent. Her eyes caught mine. She nodded, and gave me a shy smile.
According to Jodh Bai, Varsha was not permitted the use of the house. She had been given a string cot under the staircase. There she remained. Umesh had gone abroad. The rest of the house was locked. Jodh Bai did not mention any arrangements regarding money. I was sure there was none.
I bought provisions and toiletry. I slipped money into envelopes and gave it to Jodh Bai. She accepted my gestures in her own neutral manner.
Weeks passed. I did not see Varsha. Timidly, I asked Jodh Bai whether Varsha would like to move in with me. Her eyes went blank.
“Memsahib, she cannot go anywhere. She has stopped eating. She lies on her cot all day, staring at the ceiling”.
Jodh Bai held the edge of her sari to her eye.
“Shall I come?’
“No memsahib, what’s the use?”
I felt shame and panic. I could not help this beautiful girl I had come to love.
The next morning I went to the back gate with a bottle of lime juice. Jodh Bai did not seem surprised. She undid the latch. I marched in. Varsha was lying on a bare string cot. Her sari was soiled. A damp patch spread over the floor. I saw some clothes hanging from a rope. I changed her, while Jodh Bai mopped up.
I tried to force some juice into her mouth. I could not. I took her hand in mine. It was little more than a claw. I called out to her.
“Varsha it’s me Aloka”.
The eyes opened. The lips twisted into a single word.
Her eyes closed. I left the bottle of lime juice, and went home.
The next morning I saw a crowd outside Bhagwan Krupa. Heads were peering out of windows. A hearse stood near the steps. Four men carried a bier with a body covered by a white sheet out of the front door. They came down the steps. The body was loaded into the van. The crowd dispersed. The heads peeping out of windows disappeared.
“What a pity” they said later. “She never tried to make friends with us. We did not know she was ill. Umesh will be heart-broken when he returns”.
Jodh Bai did not come till evening.
“Memsahib, I could not inform you. When I saw Varsha amma had stopped breathing I called the doctor next door. He did the rest”. Her voice was steady.
I nodded my head in understanding. I could not speak. Jodh Bai opened a knot in her sari.
“Amma said to give this to you”. She held out a heavy bold bangle. It was studded with diamonds. If sold it would have kept them going for years. “Sahib took the rest. She hid it for you.”.
“What about you, Jodh Bai? You can stay with me if you like”.
“I will go back to my village. I have a brother there. I stayed for Amma. She has now left, the only way she could.”
She put the bracelet into my hand. I went in and locked it in my cupboard. When I came out Jodh Bai was washing the vessels.
“Memsahib, if you have any extra work, I can do it for you. I don’t have to go home in a hurry.” Her voice shook. End