I worked hard in my fields, continued running errands and doing odd jobs for village folks, and looked forward to my biweekly visits to the Gurudwara. I caught my mother looking at me curiously when she thought I wasn’t looking. She never asked and I never shared either.
Yet another of my Uncles passed away and his widow, my Aunt, called for me. His lands were thoroughly neglected with no one to care for them, and poachers took advantage of them. Her son had wasted himself with drugs and women and her daughter was married abroad. She being illiterate and always confined to the house, did not know what to do.
Would I help, she wanted to know?
A tiny seed of compassion reared its head but I quashed it immediately. My mother had been like her once, but no one had shown her any mercy. Not even the women of the house.
I told her I would think about it and get back to her.
When I shared my proposal my Aunt was stunned. My condition was that she would have to transfer the lands in my name, in place of which I would drive away poachers, fence the land in, cultivate it, and give her ¾ of the money the yield earned, for as long as she lived. After which the land and its earnings were all mine. I asked her to think about it and walked away.
My Aunt sent for me the next day, agreeing to my proposal, and I started getting the legalities sorted immediately. As soon as the paperwork was done I set to work.
My workload increased but I was also proud to have acquired more land. My Uncles land had been twice my size, and even after he had sold a lot of it, a generous portion remained, which would mine in the future.
I was deep in thought during the Langar when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see who it was and it was her. Soni. She raised an eyebrow questioningly towards me as she stood, swinging her plait left and right. I raised my eyebrow in return, as I stirred my ladle in a huge vat of Dal bubbling away.
‘Ki?’ (what?)she asked
‘Ki?’ (what?)I retorted
‘Aaj pucchega nahin?’ (Won’t you ask me today?) was her second question
‘Sawaal da jawaab’ (the answer to the question) I responded.
‘Sanjhi de nere mil mainu, aaj raati. Wadde bargat ke kol. Dassangi tenu’ (meet me on the banks of the Sanjhi river, near the big banyan tree tonight and I’ll give you my answer), and before I could respond she ran away.
I was speechless. This was the last thing I had expected. I was ecstatic even though I didn’t know what to think or do.
For the past few years, I had no thought in mind, except that of protecting my mother and later breaking free from that miserable life we led. I didn’t know any girl, for that matter when I tried to think if I had even spoken to any girl my mind drew a blank. So, I didn’t know how to interpret this change in Soni. I had no one whom I could ask either. I would have to meet her to find out.
I reached the big banyan tree to find no one there. I circled it to make sure and then sat down beneath it, waiting. The Sanjhi flowed peacefully, moonlight turning its surface to silver. Mixed emotions still pulled me both ways. While I was happy that it had come to this, I questioned what would happen next. Soni didn’t come for a long time. It was a prank I concluded, broken-hearted after a long wait. I got up, brushed my clothes off, and started walking home.
I had walked a little distance when something hit me sharply on my back, followed by a yell, ‘Oye! Kitthe chala tu?!’ (Hey you, where are you off to?) It was her, hurtling a pebble at me to get my attention.
I paused, then turned and walked back and stood in front of her. Standing within such close proximity to her I found my tongue had tied itself into knots and all my bravado had melted away.
‘Naam ki hai tera?’ (What is your name?) she asked
‘Tera?’ (yours?) I asked
Silence. We both didn’t know what more to say.
‘Jagga? Ai bhi koi naa hon da hai, bewakupha sa!’ (Jagga? Is that even a name? So stupid it sounds!) she spat out, her eyes shining with mirth.
I suppressed a smile before I retorted ‘Mainu toh Seebo pasand hai’ (I like Seebo) my tongue was slowly untangling itself.
‘Seebo pasand hai ya Seebo da na?’ (Do you like Seebo or her name?) she asked naughtily, looking somewhere beyond my shoulder, not meeting my eyes.
‘Haw! Tut te wada besharam seega!’ (My God, how shameless you are!)
‘Dekh le, aisa hi hoon’ (This is me) my heart was hammering.
Once the initial awkwardness was overcome we couldn’t stop talking. To each other, over each other. I told her she was ‘Soni’ to me and the reason behind that name, and it seemed to please her.
Her questions flew fast. Where did I live? With whom did I live. Was I married? How much land did I own?
I learned that she was the youngest of 8 sisters. Her father had passed away long ago, leaving them penniless. Her mother sewed to make ends meet and bring up her daughters, 4 of whom were unmarried.
After getting to know more about each other, I felt a kinship with Soni. We both didn’t have fathers and both of us had faced struggles growing up.
Mid conversation I realized that hours had passed and it was very late in the night, it was almost morning, and I stood up abruptly. Won’t the people in her house realize she was missing, I questioned her. They wouldn’t even know she was gone even if she disappeared for days was her reply, a bitter smile turning her soft face harsh. She turned down my requests of dropping her home and before I could argue further, slipped into the bushes and disappeared.
The first of our meetings were followed by many. We met twice a week, on the days she came to the Gurudwara. Even though I worked hard the whole day and, thanks to these nightly meetings, hardly slept at night I was never tired. I had new reserves of energy and felt exhilarated instead.
So this is what a good life is, I thought to myself for the first time.
This post is a part of the Blogchatter Half Marathon.
I am writing A Fictional Short story – A River Runs Through It – for this challenge.
Read Part 1 of the story here
Read Part 2 of the story here
Read Part 3 of the story here
Read Part 4 of the story here
Read Part 5 of the story here