Translated from Punjabi by The Authors' Guild of India Co-operative Society, Delhi.
The oven-baked chapati, crisp and hot, was most inviting. I dipped it in the vegetable curry and bit off a morsel.
"There are too many chillies in the curry!" My children and I cried. The spicy curry had set our mouths aflame. "Most Jats frequent my hotel," the hotel-keeper said. "And there's only one liquor shop for miles around. When the Jats are drunk, they like to have something spicy to eat." "The Jats...?"
"Yes, my child. All Jats enjoy a drop of liquor. And when they commit murder, they like to get well and truly drunk."
"Only the other day, a couple of them barged into the hotel, dead drunk. They had killed a man and they were very rowdy. Do you see those broken chairs? That's their doing. Bless the police. They arrived in time, otherwise the hotel would have been in shambles. Well, anyway, I cannot complain. They are my main source of income after all."
My eagerness to see the Kaushalya river had once again led me from Chandigarh to this village. Our talk had started with chillies, but from chillies it ran to liquor and then to the horror of bloodshed. I became anxious to take my children away from there. The wayside dhaba, its floor plastered with mud paste, was clean and airy. A part of it had been portioned off by a curtain made of hessian bags, which didn't quite reach the floor. From the gap below the curtain, one could glimpse the legs of three chairs. A place where a family lived could not be so dangerous after all.
I was not wrong in my conjecture. A woman peeped from behind the curtain, then she came out and stood in front of me.
"Don't you recognize me?" She asked.
She was a young woman, plainly dressed. I stared at her face but I was unable to place her.
"I recognized you the moment I saw you," she said. "You came here last year... no, it was the year before last," she corrected herself.
"Yes, I came here the year before last," I answered.
"While you were here, a marriage party had stopped on the maidan."
"A marriage party? Yes, I remember it."
The whole thing came vividly back to my mind. Two years ago, I had been asked to recite a poem that I had written at the inauguration of the Chandigarh Radio Station. The programme over,I had decided to make a trip to the Kaushalya river with some of my friends. The road to the river ran through this village and sloped down to the river a mile-a-half away. The uphill climb on the way back had tired us and we felt like stopping for a hot cup of tea here and to eat something. That day, besides the oven-baked chapatis and the meat curry which was the usual fare at such a shop, we were also served with platefuls of sweets.
"My niece's marriage procession is to pass through this village tonight. I owe it to my niece to entertain the party. I must do them honour."
We were still in the shop when the procession arrived. At the request of the bride's uncle, it stopped at the maidan.
"Marriage is a fascinating thing," one of us had remarked.
"When one enters wedlock, it's all smiles and gaiety and when one..." With each sip of tea, the discussion had become more and more animated.
"If you will wait for me, I'll go and see the bride," I said. "I would like to see the expression on her face."
I smiled as I approached the palanquin. There was an opening at one end of the curtain. "May I have a look at the bride?" I asked the barber woman who was escorting the bride to her new home. "You're welcome, bibiji," the woman said effusively. "Our bride is beautiful." Yes, the bride was as beautiful as the pearl in her Shringarpuri nose-ring. I placed a one-rupee note in her hand and returned to my friends.
"If the bride knew you were a celebrated poetess, she would have asked you to autograph the note," one of them said jokingly.
Though this had happened two years ago, I was able to recall every detail. "Are you the same girl, the bride I saw in the palanquin?"
In a matter of two years, she had changed from a lovely girl to a careworn woman. I could see that life had not dealt with her kindly. I did not know what to say to her.
"I've seen your picture in the newspaper," she said. "Not once, but twice. Sometimes, customers leave their newspapers here. I came across your picture in one of them."
"How interesting! And you recognized me?"
"Yes, at once. But why did they put your picture in the paper?"
No one had ever asked me such a question. I did not know how to respond. "It's because I write poems and stories," I replied feeling embarrassed.
"Stories? Do you write stories, true stories?"
"Yes, the stories are true, but the names are false, so that nobody should find whom they are about."
"Will you write my story?"
"Of course I will, if you want to."
"My name is Karmanwali, the fortunate one. You need not conceal my name. You can use it, I'm not afraid of speaking the truth. But no one listens to me, no one actually cares." She took my hand and led me to the cot behind the curtain.
"Before my marriage took place, two women came from my future father-in-law's house to take my measurements. One of them was a girl about my age. She was a distant cousin of the man I was to marry. "We're the same size," she said, "The clothes that I will make for your will fit you perfectly." "What she said was true. The bridal clothes that my in-laws sent for me fitted me exactly. The girl lived with me for many months and made all my clothes. She was very fond of me. When she left our home, she told me not to have my clothes made by anyone else while she was away, even if she was away for several months. She wanted to make them herself when she returned.
"I liked the girl as much as she liked me. There was only one thing about her that annoyed me. She always made a point of trying on all my clothes before she gave them to me. "Our measurements are the same," she would say, "See how well your clothes fit me?" "Inspite of the fact that the clothes were new, I could never get over the fact that they had been worn by someone else before I wore them."
The woman was illiterate, sitting on a loosely strung cot, covered with a threadbare sheet, but I was startled by the delicacy of her thought. "I did not tell the girl what was in my mind," the woman continued. "It might have hurt her feelings." "Well?" I said, as she stopped. "I came to know about it after a year had passed. My husband and the girl were having an affair. She was my husband's cousin, twice or thrice removed. Her brother was terribly upset at their goings on. He even threatened to cut off his sister's head. Someone told me that at the time of my marriage, when the girl was holding the reins of the mare on which my husband rode to the wedding, she became hysterical and fainted."
I noticed that there were tears in the woman's eyes. Impulsively, she reached for my hand and held it. I could feel hers trembling. "Please understand me clearly," she said. "I hate to wear discarded clothes. My gold trimmed salwars, my star-studded chunnis, my brocade kameez, they were her cast-offs in a way and so was my husband, you know what I mean." Could one clothe such feelings in words? I felt unequal to the task.
"I have left these clothes behind," the woman continued. "And my husband too. Now, I live with my maternal uncle. I sweep the floor and wipe the tables. I have brought a sewing machine and I take in work. I wear homespun clothes. I am content with them. I prefer them to discarded clothes even if they are made from the finest of silk. My uncle is anxious to patch up our quarrel. He doesn't understand me. I am happy as I am. I want nothing more. And that in short, is the story of my life. Please write it down for me. I want people to understand how I feel about it."
The fortunate one! The woman with the strong body and the strong heart, who had undergone much suffering. I reached out to her and embraced her. Outside cars sped past the small hotel on their way down from Shimla. Now and then, a car stopped briefly in front of the hotel and its occupants, dressed in silks, emerged for a cup of tea or a packet of cigarettes or some oven-baked chapatis. The fortunate one, who had discarded silks and was now in a homespun kameez, silently attended to their demands.
"I've preserved the note you gave me," she said.
"Really? I gave it to you a long time ago," I answered.
"Yes, I handed it over to the barber woman for safe-keeping. When I saw your photograph, I took it back from her."
She pulled out a trunk from under the cot and produced a folded one rupee note from a wooden casket.
"Please write your name on it for me," she said.
"Karmanwali, I would gladly write my name on this note," I said. "But I would rather that you wrote your name on my note. The writer of a story is not as great as the one who has lived the story. It is the suffering that makes one great."
I took a rupee note out of my purse. "I'm no good at writing," she said shyly. "But still, I'll try."
The fortunate one, today I have sat down to write your story. Your name, like the sacred mark on the forehead of a devotee, is the title. I know the story will not do you any good. But those who spill others' blood, which resembles the colour of saffron on your forehead, will honour you.