Nothing was wrong with Monimala. She just liked to dance.
Mini cried all last night. Her aunt Monimala danced all night with an invisible man, or a group of men; they didn't know with whom she danced.
All they knew was that Monimola's dance companions were strangers. They didn't hear the beats but assumed, since she was a Bihu dancer, that the rhythm to which she danced were nothing but bihu beats; but she wasn't dancing Bihu.
Her mother didn't sleep all night. She checked on Monimola again and again, to see if she was tired of dancing. At times, she raised the wick of the kerosene lamp to light up the room and found her daughter twitching in bed with a soft murmur, running around the room with her hands raised, moving her hand in the air and marking her steps.
She never felt tired.
She danced with the energy of a thousand elephants. Nothing could stop her. Nothing but her brother's cane, his kicks. Monimala danced all night. Purobi watched her dance, silently.
Monimala had no company.
There was no music except for Mini's loud cries. They filled Monimala's room, competed with the lamp's faint light for space, and played like some background score.
Mini had ugly sketches drawn on her back. The welts were so ugly that she cried all night. They were red, blue, and black. A few of them bled. Mini's great-grandmother Dwipori, the strongest pillar of the house, shook at their sight and applied Borolin antiseptic cream on her wheals all night. She forgot to pound betel nuts for her rickety old teeth.
Mini cried until the crows rose up in their nests and cawed, welcoming the morning, the dew and the luminous east. Her great-grandmother massaged ointment again and again, and Monimala danced. Kept dancing. The entire night.
The absence of her brother, Anup, from home provided Monimala with a golden opportunity to dance. She was a punctured balloon by the time he reached home. Her bed was the safest place. On both sides were the two great insurmountable Pillow Castles. Over her head was the tattered old quilt. Its soft, warm darkness protected her from her brother's wrath. After a long time she had danced that night. Even her mother couldn't stop her from dancing. After a long wrestling-match, when Purobi's nose hit hard against Monimala's head and bled, she had decided it was better to wrestle with the kerosene lamp's luminosity.
Snow-white froth gathered between her lips like curious people around a squabble-ridden house. Occasionally, her mother made the best use of the sador that she wrapped around the body, with the part that dangled behind her back.
Mini disapproved of the ugly designs her father drew on her back with a thick farmer–cane. Mini's mother Kothona scolded the air with a bitter-gourd chewing expression. Maybe she hollered at her husband Anup who wasn't home, or she must have hollered at Mini's aunt Monimala, or Monimala's mother Purobi. Her verbal arrows could have been aimed at anyone. It was not a matter of importance in a house that was already too weary searching for the reasons behind her continuous dance to Bihu beats which only she could hear.
She wasn't possessed. But if her dancing was publicized well, the people in the village would believe that she was possessed by the Mother Goddess. She had a round face, butter-colored skin, fish-shaped eyes, which would increase the levels of plausibility, since the blood-thirsty Mother Goddess usually preferred beautiful girls (fish-eyed and large-hipped) to take hold of and communicate through to the community.
The village-folk will find reasons behind unsolved mysteries discussed in gossip as old as centuries, "Oh, now we know what's the reason behind the birth of a sharp-nosed girl in a lower-caste family?"
Sitting like a group of ducks around a spherical dish pecking at grain and rice, they will pass judgments.
They would be happy to know that, after all low-castes can never give birth to sharp-nosed women. That is the department of high-caste Brahmins only.
Thus, along with her dance, Monimala's house would have been flooded with fresh fruits and milk, coins and notes, vermillion-powder and incense, red clothes and white clothes from faithful devotees of the goddess. After all, the goddess herself has chosen this body to rest in and talks to the villagers—they would think.
But Monimala's family wasn't so fortunate. Had they been, her elder brother wouldn't have been so angry. He would have loved it, wouldn't have stopped Mini from dancing with Monimala, and wouldn't have drawn ugly designs on her back that Mini and her grandmother thought weren't beautiful. With a farmer's cane he drew them. Like wild bhutura-shrubs that grew beside the roads and are used to fence boundaries. Golden wild insects sat on bhutura-leaves, and perforated them with their passionate kisses.
Anup would have loved to welcome an incarnation of the Mother Goddess into his house in the form of Monimala. It would bring more money, more fame. Anup—exhausted and dried and emaciated after working in others' fields—wouldn't have drawn those shrubby designs on his daughter's back. Not just that—had Monimala's dance been the dance of a possessed woman, the air over the village would have been different, not excited with the suppressed open-secret news that "something happened to Monimala during her trip to the city."
Two men—Romen and Hiren—wouldn't have fought like wild buffaloes and injured one of them seriously under the three-hundred and fifty year old tamarind tree.
What kind of dance was it?
That dance—it was like the descending life-ending movement of an arrow-pierced dove which glided down like fallen feathers to kiss the soil. It reminded one of Probha, who ran out on to the streets screaming under a clear night sky like a lunatic. Probha was Baruani's daughter-in-law who screamed, "They killed me!" on the streets, wearing a flame.
A moving human flame cried, "They killed me! They burnt me with kerosene for dowry!!"
A flame ran through the road that divided the village into two sides. "For dowry!!"
The group of young men who were playing cards chased the flame with rags but couldn't reach. Even before the rags wrapped the flame, the two-legged-flame jumped into the public well to save the living breathing body inside it. In vain of course.
A hiss-hiss sound.
Stench of kerosene.
Smell of burnt Assamese silk.
Smell of burnt human flesh.
That woman—Probha—died like a cracker: but screamed out to the world before dying—that she was burnt alive.
Monimala danced like that flame; but her life-span was of course not as short as a cracker's.
Monimala never heard about classical dance, its grammar and its accuracy and its grace. Neither did she know about disco-dances. Sometimes she had seen dancing couples and groups at the English teacher's house during commercial breaks shown on TV during the mythological Jai Sri Krishna series about the exploits of Lord Krishna, on Sundays. At the village prayer hall—namghor, she had seen the classical Sattriya dance performed by white-dressed angelic looking people with long sandalwood marks across their foreheads. Poor girl from a farmer's house: how could she learn classical dance even though she was a good Bihu dancer?
You need money to learn how to dance.
But the folk-dance Bihu doesn't need grammar, practice. It needs passion.
She never wanted to learn classical dance. Sattriya was the sole classical dance she had ever seen performed. But that was long ago—at an age when she used to roam around in a twenty-rupee panty, an age when she could lick her palm and suck her fingers without hesitance during wedding feasts. In that poor village, most girls didn't get to wear a frock at such an early age. But she did have a flowery one, hung on a long nail that was hammered into the wall of her mother's room. It was unreachable even if she placed two bamboo-stools one on top of another. It was meant for special occasions like Bihu, Durga Puja and weddings.
After the first bleeding from between her legs—she stopped going with her grandmother to the namghor, to attend religious gatherings. What was the need to go there! People clapped all day and sung about Lord Krishna not showing his face to them—"Please show us your face;
why do you stay hidden,
show your face,
show these foolish people your face,
why do you hide,
why do you hide."
On the other hand, she could watch the same Lord Krishna dancing with his hands outstretched with his lovers every Sunday in the TV at the village teacher's house. Lord Krishna had sixteen-hundred girlfriends and he danced with all of them at the same time She used to watch TV all day sitting there. One series after another. She liked the Coca-cola and the Close-up ads. How easily men and women fell in love with each other. A smile. A bottle of chilled light-brown water.
She had nothing else to do. Her name was struck off the rolls since her father couldn't afford her education anymore—it was difficult to afford enough food for the five stomachs. So she used to sit with the English-teacher's elder daughter and watch all the Hindi soaps in which women conspired against each other. It was the year when the English-teacher's son appeared for his boards when she lost her father to tuberculosis. There was a large crowd in her house. To shed off the post-funeral loneliness at home she stopped going to watch TV, started spending more time with her mother.
Actually, that wasn't the sole factor of stopping to go to watch TV. The reason behind the interruption of her relationship with the English-teacher's house was also because of Hiren's hands, which expressed the desire to build a nameless relationship with her. It was only after that incident that she started finding the black pillars of her small house safer (you never get lost as you might in a big house), the perforated straw-ceiling of her house liberating (you can see the sky, count the stars and sink into wind-welcoming moods) and the rickety bamboo-beds more comfortable.
Her father's death, Hiren's board exams and his unruly expressive hands towards her body—these three components had brought the young girl closer to her mother.
Where did she learn this special dance which only Probha, the woman-flame could dance before she died like a cracker? Probha: the woman who had known the dance of death.
Even Romen hadn't taught her this dance. Then what did he teach her? He had taught her to create creases in her slim waist along with the beats of the drum. He had taught her dance-steps which no one else had known; the obsolete buffalo-fight steps, which only nostalgic old women danced during weddings and family gatherings. Then where had she learnt this dance from—the dance that only the woman-flame could perform?
It was impossible to learn from the visuals in the television. It was also not that dance, which narrated a story standing upright all night with songs; 'thiyonaam'—it's called.
There are stories in 'thiyonaam'; Monimala's dance was silent, stubborn with its firm refusal to speak. Like vultures, the village folk pecked at her; no flesh they got; but only hurt her.
Yet the village didn't meet to pass a decisive order about the state of her and her family—if they should be excommunicated or not—and it was all because of her flat stomach. She had been dancing for six months then. Her stomach was still flat like the Philips Lets Make Things Better TV at the village English teacher's house. A village will never meet to discuss a woman with a flat stomach. It wasn't that important but still there will be questions and news and views that will continue to pierce the family for a matter which wasn't even that important. Like vultures they nibbled at her eyes; her stomach; her life; her dance; they got no flesh; but only hurt her.
Though there wasn't a meeting, there was a fight. Under the tamarind tree.
A fierce fight like two wild buffaloes contending.
In front of the namghor—the village prayer hall.
The village headman's wife discovered it. She saw blood under the three hundred and fifty year old tamarind tree. Its straggling roots, like a million pre-historic snakes around its trunk.
Those were the remnants of a buffalo-fight. She didn't know. She had wondered whose rabid dog had attacked whose goat. She remembered noticing Gunusha's dog which had roamed around with a lolled tail for some days. If not a dog, was it a fern-stripped tiger? Or a spotted leopard?
After her unintentional circumambulation of the pious, feared, spirits-lush tamarind tree, she screamed when she saw the injured angry buffalo.
At first, nobody had come. Gunusha's dog reached the shadow of the tamarind tree looking for lonely cats. When he noticed the village-headman's wife, he showed her his bottom and shook it vigorously. After he went nearer, he found the stream of blood from Romen's head dampening the dust. He smelled it twice and ran away.
The village headman's wife's scream floated in the air. Soon it became a wailing. It tore apart the tamarind tree's leafy canopy to reach the skies. Leaves were falling like summer ants which take flight only to drop down on backs, roofs, people's cheeks, necks, and are killed by swatting hands, pecking birds. People came like curious women who enjoyed listening to disputes at neighbors' homes. The spirit-infested tamarind tree's shadow on the ground was trodden by inquisitive people. Women came, complaining; asking each other who must have hit this young man who they had seen growing up. Poor guy, he used to dance gorgeous Bihu; sing Bihu songs and could beat the drum like no one else during the Bihu Festival. Only his beats could arouse the feet and waists of old women who couldn't even stand properly due to rheumatic pains. His magical, famous, bihu beats on the drum. Bihu beats of spring: a season when roads give birth to tributaries through harvested paddy fields and dead-cow skins mooh from percussion instruments.
Romen regained consciousness three days later. It was a morning ripped apart my cawing crows. His mother cooked some extra rice, expecting guests. Elders say, when crows caw, guests arrive unannounced.
He was reclining on his back, thinking about Monimala's dance, which he hadn't taught her ever. Suddenly, the English-teacher's eldest son Anil, dropped his brother Hiren, like a large fish on the village-headman's courtyard. He growled like an injured dog from his bed You bastard, that day you broke my skull with a stone from my back and fled! . . . " He wanted to go out, but his elder sister had held him back forcefully.
The village headman's wife, who was scaling a large fish for lunch by moving it left-right, swaying it left-right, stormed out of the kitchen. She didn't care about the sador that slipped down from her head. She cursed. She reminded Hiren how they had grown up together. She told Anil, that her son may not study in the city but still he had his basic human values intact.
The screaming mother didn't even know the reason behind the fight between both of them.
When she learnt, she had forgotten how-to scream. Maybe she would have shouted and cursed had she been well.
Her body burnt. Flames danced Bihu inside her mind. Nothing could bring down her high-blood pressure: the juice of tender nefafu leaves, ripe tamarind-rinsed cold water from thousand-pored earthen pots, raw garlic paste. Women from the neighborhood flocked the house like bees to look after her. They massaged her head with oil and cold water from earthen pots. But more they tried to cool her down, sickness took over her more.
Though Arun's mother tried to bring her blood pressure down with cold water and oil, she made the best use of her tongue. After all, who gets to say these things to the village headman's wife in usual days? A felled tree was a felled tree, even though it was teak, or sesame, or sal. Everyone axed on felled trees for firewood.—"Wasn't he born after five girl children? You took so much of pain to get a son! Now your son has kicked you in your ass! What will happen to this generation?"
To this, Romen's mother responded slowly, "Why doesn't he kill me instead? And what was wrong with me Arun's Mother? Don't you think I should have left him to die that day?" Softly. Mournfully. Like bats talking with each other while eating ripe guavas at the backyard woods.
Arun's mother immediately provided a counter argument, "Why are you blurting out such inauspicious sentences? Spoken word is like released arrow; once sent out, it never comes back. So you should be careful in whatever you pronounce. He will listen to you, you mustn't worry."
But did she really wish to die?
As she never wanted what follows don't you think I should have left him to never turn into truth, she had never wanted to die as well. Through her death wish, she wished to gain back control over this buffalo which she had reined until then. Through her false death wish, she wanted to divert his attention from the beauty of the strange dance into which he had moored his attention, of which she had no prior knowledge of. Softly, mournfully, went on the blue dance of Monimala in another corner of the village; like bats talking with each other while eating ripe guavas with red-insides in it during still nights. That house had a dwarfed verandah. It nested a blue story in it.
So many men fall in love with so many girls in this village; do all of them end up getting married to the ones they love? It was usual to have a crush on someone with whom you have grown up with, shared stolen cakes and lemons, mangoes, danced Bihu. Most of them got married to each other; some didn't.
Romen had to belong to that minority of 'didn't'-s.
Monimala could also be possessed by an evil spirit—you never know. If the Mother Goddess was the one who had possessed her, by now, she would have had drank the blood of many pigeons, spoke what men should do when production in fields dwindled, where unmarried girls should sacrifice a black goat to hear "good news" in three weeks from the east.
A sane, stable girl, who went to the town, came back as unstable and insane. So, why wouldn't people talk? What was Hiren's fault? Everyone gossiped; the whole village was gossiping. Most of the women almost knew what happened to her. They had created scenes in their minds on "what the policemen must have done with her" ( her naked body lying on the bed and each of the policemen's butts moving to and fro between her legs).
That society was burdened with their unaware inability to understand the meaning of Monimala's dance. Even if someone wanted to understand, he was injured under a tamarind tree for not accepting what all accepted, and what all imagined. Why was she dancing? Did she crave for a partner to dance with? She couldn't even speak aloud that she was hungry, how could she say she wanted to dance with someone. Or may be—she already had some company which no one saw.
Romen was her dance-partner even before they started to know the differences in their bodies. Now, he wanted to join her at last. He'd go armed with a song:
An ejar flower tree amidst the harvested paddy fields,
Why wouldn't she listen? Hadn't she confessed to him one day that when he sung that specific couplet, she felt like leaning on his shoulder and start to weep? She had told him, she felt as if he was narrating Kanchoni's traumatic tale where both the lovers die. The king lusted after Kanchoni who was already married to her lover. Since she refused to sleep with the King, he ordered her husband be killed. As he was dying in the gallows, he noticed Kanchoni crossing the full-grown paddy fields amidst rice stalks that were bending with the weight of ripe grains to reach him. So he had sung:Paddy fields, paddy fields,
Come not, Kanchoni—
Sharp paddy saplings will cut your skin;
Let me die,
At least you must go home,
and save your life
Monimala! She had never sung as a reply like Kanchani (if it cuts, let it cut me, if it cuts, let it cut me.) But she used to stop dancing—identifying, and acknowledging the unique understanding between Romen and her. No one else but both of them had known that code-language-like-song. As all lovers have such meaning-loaded Bihu songs, even they had.Why wouldn't she understand?
there's a violet ejar flower blooming
amidst the paddy field.
He believed, she would stop to say as she always did, "Do you think anybody suspects? Let them. I was so exhausted!"
The end of her golden silk sador or or will be pressed on her forehead, around the red round circle on her forehead, cheeks, nose, soaking up the dance-sweat from her skin. He thought, a song would bring her back to senses. A song would bring stability into her unstable dance and she'd snap back at Hiren, yes, the policemen had found me lying on the road. But they didn't take force me to spread my legs for them.
'Nothing is wrong with her'—he tried to convince himself, and didn't think of what Hiren had to say.
He believed Hiren was trying to make him angry. Amidst the paddy field, there stood an ejar, violet and blooming, where the tired danseuse danced to the beats of percussion made from dead cows' skins. So it was a month when dead cow's skins mooed till men and women were drenched with dance-sweat.
Monimala's violet body.
A single glance at it speaks of the existence of a bluer sky, ejar-colored past which would continue to impinge on her, on her family. Like the weight of a large block of stone on a man's chest, like bad name earned by women like stone inscriptions.
How absurd and mysterious her past was! A past—where only colour was visible; as one couldn't fathom a mute man's injury, but only the violent remnants of it. Everyone wanted to know what happened to her, while Romen watched her dancing, softly keening figure, with a glass of tea pressed between his palms.
An enchanted Monimala—who murmured melody-less songs.
He had come often till the buffalo fight took place. He would come with some or the other excuse, and crane his neck inside to see her. The warmth of his breath competed with the steaming glasses of tea.
She had been fond of dancing but had never told him that she would suddenly decide to dance non-stop that way. Couldn't she tell him once before taking such a big decision? A dance he would never be able to perform. A dance he would never be able to bring into a halt, with a code-language-like-song since both hadn't danced the new dance together ever. As if she circumambulated a pyre. A pyre that spread the smell of burnt flesh into the air—like the aroma of cooked fish during the first days of the ainy season, the smell of wet grass and mud trampled by farmers on their way to work irrespective of the rains.
Nobody had seen that pyre. Nobody had known whose pyre it was, or whose pyres they were. When the Assamese policemen had helped Monimala get off the jeep, Purobi had started to pull her hair and cry. "Everything is over! Over!! There was no need for her to be back." She had assumed Monimala was raped and in India a raped woman was a good as dead. She would be an outcaste, an untouchable. She wouldn't be able to go to temples. No one would marry her.
But that was after everyone thought Monimala had died.Monimala had been kidnapped by unknown men in an unknown place, taken to an unknown place, and was killed after being raped. What else could happen to a girl in this country when people were surprised not to hear of deaths, kidnappings and bomb blasts everyday?
Her grandmother hadn't shuffled like her daughter-in-law. Purobi looked older than Podmeshwari—at least when she was distraught; at least when she cried. Her hair with grey strands had cascaded like a river from her head as she walked fast but steady, to fetch her lost-and-found grandchild.
Anup couldn't remain calm either. He left the unfinished bamboo creel that he was weaving and ran towards the jeep. Such an incident had not happened till then in anyone's house in that village—of police visiting.
He had searched everywhere possible: had been to his aunt's house, where she had set off to; he had asked around, had planted people in various places in Guwahati to check in the bus stands with black and white photos of Monimala. Most of them were his cousins. They had assured him to call up on Vikram's phone to inform as soon as they got a clue. His aunt had wept all night, "She never came to my house! Something must have happened on the way."
Everybody thought she had died in the bomb blast in the bus that was going to Guwahati from their village. But many buses come and go from their village each day. How could somebody tell in which bus she had traveled? He had also gone to the morgue. She wasn't there. At least the remnants of the charred bodies which made him throw-up didn't speak of her presence in that cursed bus.
People in the village had seen the jeep coming. They followed it like hungry dogs' eyes following food and continually murmured in amazement.
Anup's concerns were not out of filial love. More than her well being, he was worried of her virginity – the family would be excommunicated as well, if she had lost her virginity.
May be that's why he had beaten up Mini so badly the other night. He had hollered, "Will you dance again? Will you dance with that madwoman again? Oh I can't move out of this house and step onto the road—everyone asks me if Monimala is expecting."
Unaware Mini. She didn't know what it meant. She had seen her aunt Monimala dancing all night and had emulated her cheerfully. Anup had not even listened to the threats and curses of his grandmother, "How dare you touch my grand-daughter, you dog! You dare not call her names! Don't even touch her again!"
He had kicked Monimala with his long, powerful banana-plant-like fat legs.
When he had gone with the marriage proposal to Kothona's house, as he pulled up his dhoti till the knee to rub his feet, pouring water over it with one hand, he sensed the presence of a woman, "What if you ever kick my sister with those powerful legs?"
He had blushed.
It was Bondona, Kothona's sister.
One side was lifted almost to his waist; and the blush had brought more ruddiness to his cheeks and made his ears hot. She had sprinted away, laughing like a brook.
She had visited them many times after the marriage and while Kothona slept, he had allowed her hands to reach much beyond than what she saw that day as he washed his feet, by pulling up his dhoti so high that she had seen his powerful legs, his hairy thighs. Bondona, got married three years ago and till then, whenever she had come, they remained on top of one another, inside each other, becoming one shadow, one being; usually at midnight, in the bed in the store room surrounded by ploughs and fishing equipments.
So those legs, which had given him unlicensed sex with his sister-in-law, were used to kick Monimala.
What if you ever kick my sister with those powerful legs? O my god, she'd die after the first kick.
Dwipori had come in between him and Monimala as he proceeded to kick her for the third time, "Kick me rather than that poor mad girl. What does she know?"
As Monimala sighed in relaxation after the assurance that there wouldn't be any more kicks, Kothona's shrill voice had pierced the ears of everyone who was home, "I had suggested so many times to get her locked up in an asylum. No one listens to me but do folks know what the villagers are speaking about? Do folks know at all what's happening around them? My daughter! How was she beaten up for no reason due to that madwoman! I fear she'd become mad as well, with lunatics as close company all day all night. Don't blame me if I tie her up and send her to the asylum someday in anger."
Dwipori was cool and calm. She had stood erect, head held high. She didn't have even an iota of excitement in her when she spoke to Kothona, "I'm your mother-in-law's mother-in-law. You must think before you speak anything. Don't you have any sense of propriety? Do you know that even the man who you are married to dares not to look into my eyes?"
She had smashed the fish that she was scaling on the ground and stormed out of the kitchen.
It meant: she wouldn't cook that day as her mother-in-law's mother-in-law insulted her.
The clanging sound of the scaler clouded Purobi's face, "No one has a soft corner for my poor daughter!"
There was almost a procession behind the policemen's jeep which moved slowly due to the potholed roads. It came past scores of bamboo gates in front of homes. Each house lined their borders and declared their separation from their neighbors' compound and the main road (potholed) of the village by hedges of bhutura plants. During winters, golden insects sat on its leaves. Those bhutura leaves; its tender branches could be broken in the middle to blow bubbles by blowing into the froth in between. Some of the houses could afford bamboo fencings instead of bhutura plants.
People came from those houses: that could afford bamboo fences and that couldn't afford bamboo fences.
It was evening, a yellow evening. There was a cheerful brightness around, as the sun shuffled away for the night's sleep. People who were tethering their cows under the sheds hurried towards Monimala's house. People who had considered picking up the dung heaps of homecoming cows from the courtyard, and leaving it in under the slanting papaya tree behind the house to form manure, had left their spades to come. Women, who had asked the little children of the house to collect the dry clothes hung on reachable clotheslines, forgot to scold the children playing with the crumpled clothes as, "You mustn't hit each other with dry clothes; it brings bad luck!"
"Moni has been found! A police-jeep brings her home!"
Though many people had come out of curiosity, they had already formed their opinions in their mind. "What a great time the police must have had with her!" Some of them whispered.
But when they found out the jeep-passengers and Monimala-usherers spoke their language; the same language in which silky Bihu songs are woven—as silky as dew-dipped cobwebs in forests that glisten as sunlight kisses them—they felt relieved.
Still, they were scared. Afraid. A fear formed a canopy over them but it was a fear that was familiar; a fear that spoke the same language as them; since the jeep-riders and Monimala-usherers spoke the same language as them.
If required, even they could sing Bihu.
If needed, even they could play the drum, dance a step or two; lift some specks of dust up into the air with their cracked heels.
Chondro, the man from the same village accompanied them. He was one of those characters without whom any wedding didn't become a wedding in the truest sense. A wedding becomes a wedding when there is adequate gossip. A man to entertain the men. A woman to entertain the women. Chondro entertained the women as well as the men. He could whisper such things into the women's ears that no other men would ever dare to and yet get away with it leaving the woman red. Sometimes he even knew the costs of the latest blouses (may be even laced bras and panties) in the Sonapur Saturday Market. So did he know the rates of whores. The taste of each one of them. The story behind each one of them. It entertained the men. They scratched their balls; slapped each other on the backs, poked each other between the legs and laughed as he amused them with his stories. He could dance like a woman for the men and sing mournful wedding songs so sweetly that would embarrass the best female singer well known across seven villages for her sugar-sweet voice. A wedding floated on laughter with Chondro's presence. He knew everything. All gossip; all stories; all inside stories of families that you shouldn't know of.
So Anup was relieved to find Chondro with Monimala. After all, he was one of the villagers, their own.
As an omniscient Chondro started narrating Monimala's story, she screamed and fell down on the ground. (She was yet to start dancing.)
Romen was standing ahead of everyone. He wanted to go and hold her up. Most people say, she was fine till then; she started dancing as a result of the injury in her head. There wasn't a single graceful movement in her body when an omniscient Chondro started to narrate the blue story, the violet story, the story that all wanted to know and yet didn't know completely even after Chondro completed it.
So they just agreed along with him. "Thank God, I went to see my mother's elder brother's father in law's brother's daughter in the hospital and found her!" Chondro had said.
They said, "Yes, yes, she might have remained there forever, otherwise."
With Chondro they reached Khetri, where the hospital was; where the jeep which brought Monimala was going back to: slow and steady over pot-holed roads, bamboo fencings on the sides, bhutura fencings whose stems sprouted, grew leaves, on which golden insects sat during winters to perforate them so that no dew gathered on them for butterflies to drink.
And the village folk let out affirmative sounds: had the police not picked her up from the blast site, she would have remained among those charred bodies. That site where pyres burnt without sandalwood, attars and water from the Ganges.
The pyres which only Monimala saw; no one else.
The site of burning pyres.
The people listened to Chondro enraptured, in pin drop silence.
Dogs smelled their feet, wagged their tails in vain and left to fight with the other dogs. Cowardly dogs fled when they saw more powerful dogs. Others lay down to show their breasts and stomachs as a sign of surrender.
Lucky Monimala; Monimala the lucky one; who came back from the land of pyres; lucky Monimala: constantly threatened by her sister-in-law that she'd be sent to an asylum.
Monimala, the lucky one: kicked by her brother twice on her stomach.
Fortunate Monimala: who traveled from one hell to another.
And one day, Romen came. One day – a day that came many days after she was brought in the jeep, many days after Chondro told the villagers how she saw the bus go into flames in front of her eyes and saw charred bodies, moaning bodies, quivering limbs and hands and fingers, heads asking for water or screaming in fear without even knowing that they were dead.
But Romen came.
One morning, he came, leaving his house, against his mother's wishes.
Though he walked past the bamboo fencings, he didn't count the number of bamboos they had. He didn't break a branchlet, blew in between the two broken parts to create bubbles.
It was a bright morning. He moved faster than the jeep (that brought Monimala back to the village some months ago) though the roads were pot-holed, uneven. But there was something more uneven waiting for him. And he had already crossed something more uneven at home too: his mother—who didn't want him to leave, who didn't want him to go to Monimala's house, who wanted him to belong to the small minority of "didn't"-s who fell in love with girls from the same village but didn't always marry them.
As he walked towards Monimala's hamlet, women who were sweeping the courtyards with hunched backs stood up to look. Children who were planning to excuse themselves from school faking a stomach ache were distracted for a second. Girls, who were pleading to go to school, which they weren't allowed to after their periods started, forgot to cry.
They sensed the war.
No one knew what war.
But they were scared.
The boy, who grew up in a seven-hand high soil verandah with wooden doors and windows, stood on the two-hand high soil verandah of Monimala's house with bamboo doors and no windows. The boy who became a man under tin roofs that sang with rain so euphoniously that he hugged a pillow, smiled during his sleep, and didn't even know when one of his hands went between his legs to create more pleasure, more comfort, stood under the roof of the house which didn't have straw in some parts; the family that couldn't afford to buy tin, or even cheaper asbestos that could be perforated like the leaves of bhutura plants.
And standing there, he spoke.
Later—people wondered for years.
Chondro wondered in weddings, how Romen could speak with so much defiance.
Some people say, it was because he was standing under a roof which wept during rainy season, which had perforations; since he was from a house which had tin roofs and a higher verandah. Since he was from a house that had four granaries, as opposed to the small one Monimala's family had.
A lot others do not buy this argument—they say, it was because they grew up together; Podmeshwari had a soft corner for the boy who grew up to be the dance-partner of Monimala, the boy with whom Monimala swam in the Tamulidobha River during the spring-festival : Bihu.
However, the truth remained among the cowherds. They wore tiny loincloths that showed their buttocks but they had a wide heart which stored many graveyards.
For many years they sang Bihu songs on Monimala and Romen (afterwards, even their sons would sing those songs). Romen spoke.
Romen spoke. Purobi couldn't digest what he spoke. Neither Anup who loved to draw strange sketches on his daughter's back in his free time with a cane and repented later could digest what he spoke. He was shocked. He raised his head to look at him.
Only Dwipori could speak up, who had a soft corner for him—but in her words there wasn't any glimpse of that, "Have you lost it Romen?"
Romen looked ahead. Beyond her shoulders he saw the fortress of pillows where the princess sat speaking to herself.
She had the grace of rivers in her; the sorrows of a million nightingales' songs simmering in her eyes.
He didn't reply. He just called out, "Moni. Moni, do you hear me? "
His voice. His voice was not soft; not emotional; his voice wasn't impatient like noise.
His voice. His voice was normal. His voice wasn't formal. As normal and casual as those calls that came from him while he stood in front of her house waiting for her to finish dressing, tie the long white spring-orchid properly around her bun, waiting to go and dance all night under the tamarind tree. They lifted dusts up into the air which came down like fallen leaves onto their heads; but they never cared.
The village folk gathered in front of her house to watch them dance; the dance-drama. That drama had no script. That dance had no beats, no songs, no rhythm.
Monimala stood up.
She climbed out off the pillow fortress and stood near the door for the first time since she was found and brought home, since she screamed and fell down, hurting her head. With dark circles under her eyes, she looked like a ghost.
"Where?"—she let words invade her lips after six months.
She came near him and clutched his hands.
The people squeezed in for a better view.
She clutched his hand harder, pressed herself against his body. She was afraid. She wasn't afraid. She was afraid because they had squeezed in and she didn't know why they had squeezed in. She was not afraid because they didn't dance like Probha, Baruani's daughter-in-law who died screaming like a cracker.
Nearly a hundred people had gathered around her house, on her courtyard.
They didn't ask her to dance like those heads that asked for water and screamed asking what happened, what happened, what happened.
When she started walking along with Romen, while he made a way through the crowd, they asked: kot jawo tohoti?
Where are you all going?
A question that came suddenly, without appointments, without premonitions, but a question expected.
She was clutching Romen's left hand.
She pressed herself against his body and said with hesitation and apprehension and suspicion, "Bihu nasibole jau, akou?
"To dance Bihu?"
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