Fiction: The Lucky Girl

Subhash Chandra

- Subhash Chandra 

The whole village had erupted into celebration, after months of anxious anticipation. Word had finally come from Delhi through a postcard.
Bansi from the village, who worked as a driver in Delhi, had made the proposal to his friend, Budh Perkash, on behalf of Sharbati’s parents.  Hari Kathas sanctified the air; cheerful women belted out folk songs and danced to express their joyous feelings. 

In the eighties, Lalpur, in district Hardoi, was a tiny village, with only about seventy households and was, perhaps, one of the poorest in the state of Uttar Pradesh: no electricity, or school, or a doctor leave alone a hospital. Few infants survived their birth, and those who did, joined the toiling community of impoverished farmers with small fields. Some of them owned a goat which saved them during droughts. Bhure was one of them. Still, each drought claimed a couple of lives.

But the village was one large family. Everyone shared each other’s joys and sorrows – mostly sorrows. There were few occasions in their deprived lives to rejoice. This was one and they did it to the hilt. 
All of them were happy and proud. Except for Crazy Naani!

“Sharbati is blessed by Lord Shiva,” said one.
“Her parents are lucky,” said another.
“Bhure could never imagine, one day his daughter, will bring joy to his family and to the whole village.”
“You’re right, Bhaiyya. The poor fellow deserves this happiness; he has suffered a lot. Remember, they lost their son during the last drought.”
“She’ll be the first girl from here to live in the capital of the country.”
“She’ll get out of this hell hole.”
“I’ve heard Dilli is a very big city. There’s light all the time.”
“Yes and running water, too, for everyone.”
“And people there earn bagfuls of money. They spend lavishly and still save money in the bank.”
“Nobody dies of hunger in the Rajdhani.”

But the crazy Naani struck a discordant note. Mostly, she sat under the Banyan tree, squashing the ticks sticking to her grimy, smelly clothes, but now she was walking around excitedly leaning on her crooked walking stick, blabbering in her shrill voice, “Mad… all of you are mad... you’ll repent. She’ll suffer. She’s a cursed girl. People in the city are thugs.”
She resolutely kept away from the celebration.

A villager would sometimes smile good-naturedly and ask, “How do you know Naani? Have you been to a city?” But she continued her rant, “They can sell their mothers for money!” 

After a week, when the car, carrying the groom-to-be, his sister and a close friend, entered the village, the children went berserk. They ran amidst the cloud of dust raised by the car -- shouting, laughing and flailing their arms. The baraatis were going to arrive by bus the same evening. Sharbati’s parents, together with all the adults of the village, were ready to welcome them with large hearts, but meager resources.  

Bhure had to sell his goat to feed the baraat and got a loan of one thousand rupees from the Mahajan to give as cash-dowry, in addition to a few utensils. The fare served was rather skimpy: sattu and gur-sherbat for breakfast; boiled rice with arhar daal for lunch and dinner, with watery salted lassi. But the frugality of the meals was more than compensated by the warmth and solicitousness of the host.
The Crazy Naani was also served food, but she refused to touch it.
Nobody paid attention to her, as she had made many predictions in the past, but none of them came true.

Everyone in the village had come out to serve. After all, a daughter of the village was getting married. The sleeping arrangements were taken care of properly. Cots had been readily contributed by each family. Those who did not have cots gave their mats.

The bridegroom and his sister were satisfied and happy and so were the baraati. Sharbati’s parents and the whole village heaved a sigh of relief and patted each other.      
                                           
When the Doli was leaving the next day, Bhure said to his daughter, “Bitiya, in our families, a girl crosses the threshold of her husband’s house only as a corpse.” The mother added her bit, “You’ll be allowed entry into this house, only if you come with your husband. Without him, you’ll be stranger to us, from now on.”

Sharbati got frightened and confused. How could her parents, who were so fond of her, grow so callous just because she had been married?
When the car left with the newly-weds, the women trilled auspicious songs.
Crazy Naani stood at a distance, but showered her silent blessings on Sharbati.
#                                              
It was evening when the car entered Delhi. The sun had turned from shining gold into a burnished copper plate. Traffic was at its peak, roads were clogged with all kinds of vehicles. Sharbati was awed. So many and such big cars and buses, broad metaled roads, huge buildings!  She had heard about the vastness of the cities, but looking at Delhi in reality fascinated and scared her.  Simultaneously, a certain pride welled up in her; she would have so much to narrate to her gawking friends when she visited her village with her husband.

“We’ve reached Yamuna Pushta, our colony,” Budh Perkash said. She pulled the veil further down her face and followed him diffidently. It had just rained and the kutcha road had turned slushy.  She skirted the muddy pools, but sometimes stepped into one and the brackish water splashed up, dirtying her bridal sari.

When they reached their house -- actually a hovel in the vast slum --  Budh Perkash’s sister performed some rituals for good luck. She poured mustard oil on the threshold, made Sharbati tumble a bowl of puffed rice with her right foot, applied tilak on her forehead and then led them in. The streets were dark and inside the jhuggies hurricane lamps flickered, casting their pale, sickly light on the walls.

In the morning, when Sharbati came out of her jhuggi and surveyed the colony, a sense of gloom enveloped her.

‘Is this the city? Is this Dilli?’ The dirty streets littered with garbage; cattle, pigs and dogs roaming about freely, stagnant pools of stinking water, covered with a layer of mosquitoes. Naked children with ballooning bellies, defecating in front of their jhuggies, flies buzzing around the snot they excreted.

When she went to the municipality tap to fill water, she witnessed a scene that unnerved her. There was a serpentine queue of containers and a crowd, consisting mostly of women and a few men – the men stood on one side. Suddenly a fight broke out between two women over their turn and they started hurling abuses at each other.
Soon, the fight turned physical; each grabbing the other’s hair and shouting. The two started rolling on the ground, screaming and scratching each other. A crowd of women and children formed a ring and watched the fight with relish. The men continued to stand away, without intervening. 

Sharbati felt low. It was worse here. At least back home, there was a well from where everyone could fetch water.  In contrast to the fight, the village well was a site of friendly chats, mutual teasing and laughter.

To complete the sordid picture of her one-day-old marriage, Budh Perkash came home late, fully sloshed. He had treated his friends to celebrate his marriage; he took them to the local theka (pub) where all of them guzzled the country liquor.  He had been generous with the money given to him by the village elders as their blessings. 
#            
Six months after their marriage, one evening, Budh Perkash got back from work in a sullen mood and told her that he had chucked his job.
“But why?” asked Sharbati,
 “My Maalik is a bastard.”
Sharbati was taken aback.
“What do you mean?”
“He accused me of stealing petrol. Am I a thief?”
“Still… ….”
“I can get many jobs, but he wouldn’t get a driver like me,” he bawled in a slurred voice.
 “But how are we going to manage?
“We’ll use the money your father gave us as dowry,” he said with a scowl. Sharbati was shocked.  
“Give me five hundred,” he demanded.
She recalled her father’s words. “This is all I could muster, Bitiya,” he had said, giving her the one thousand rupees.  
“Don’t worry, I’ll soon get a job and give you back this amount”.
“But we’ve been married only a few months. Father had said, ‘this is your buffer. Use it only in a crisis.’”
“This is a crisis, isn’t it?”
She hesitated.
“What’s your problem? I’d spend the money for household needs.” 
She did not move. 
“You leave to me. I’ll buy the provisions etc. till you get a job,” she said.
“Don’t try to become my husband, you dirty bitch! I told you, I’m an expert driver. Few can match my competence. Or else, why do you think, Maalik lent me his car for my wedding trip?”

When she did not budge, Budh Perkash, flew into a rage and hit Sharbati on the face. Her nose spurted blood.
“This is the language you understand.”
Before she could act, he ransacked the trunk, found the money, and disappeared with all of it.

The next three months were uninterrupted revelry for him. He brought home minimal provisions, lazed around in the day and in the evening joined his friends to drink and gamble. Till the last rupee was spent, he made no efforts to find a job.

Sharbati also started working as a maid in the nearby houses, cleaning utensils, washing clothes, dusting etc. like the other women of the slum. Now her daily routine was to get up early in the morning, cook breakfast and lunch and leave for the back-breaking labour throughout the day. In addition to receiving scolding from the Bibijis’  for reaching late, or not doing a job properly, she received regular beatings from Budh Perkash, who forced money out of her every now and then for boozing. She wistfully recalled her childhood in the village, the time with her parents and her friends, and then bitterly thought of the words spoken by her parents. Yes, she’d soon be dead!

Budh Perkash did not get a job and joined the group of idlers who played cards, and gossiped under the Peepal tree all day, while their women slogged. 

One night, he brought a man with him, “He’s my close friend, Hira Lal. He’ll eat and sleep here for two days.”
“Why?”
“He has come from my village, Palhera. He’s an expert mason. He has come to Dilli because here he can earn big money.”
Budh Perkash and his friend sat at the back of the jhuggi and started drinking. She served them dinner; the guest sized her up and praised her cooking.

Both the men had slept outside. Around midnight she heard a soft knocking on the door. As she unbolted, Hira Lal pushed his way in and bolted the door from the inside. 
“You are so beautiful!” he said, pulling her to himself and trying to grab her breasts. She pushed him away forcefully and glared at him, “How dare you touch me, kameene?”
“Don’t indulge in coquetry, meri jaan (darling). I’ll give you extra money after you’ve satisfied me. I’ve lots.”
“Get out of here. I say get out this minute, or ….” she hissed.
“Shut up, you bitch! I’ve paid a hefty sum to your husband who owns you.”
With these words, he pounced on her, shoved her on the ground, and laid her flat on her back. Then he hitched her sari up and tried to overpower her.
In her struggle to wriggle herself free from his grip, she dug her teeth hard into his hand, leaving the little finger almost dangling.

As he fell back from acute pain, she sprang to her feet and noticed the cleaver, lying in a corner of the hut. In a flash she picked it up and raised it to strike. Hira Lal bolted to save his life.

Budh Perkash had heard the commotion, sensed trouble and entered.  He saw a vision, he thought. Goddess Kali in rage! Her feet firmly planted on the ground, blood on her mouth, hair disheveled, flaming eyes and right hand, with the cleaver, raised.


He slowly went down on his knees. 

1 comment :

  1. Awesome story of a couple Budh Perkash and Sharbati, depicting the common contemporary concerns about migration to a great city like Dilli. Sharbati steal my heart with her endurance and courage to withstand the crelties of poor life in a urban jhuggi. The narrative is striking, and characters are lively.

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