(The original story was written in 90’s and is included in my Odia anthology Deshantari (ISBN:81-7412-147-0) under the title ‘Kuhudi’ and is first time translated into English. Unlike my other stories, this story has not been translated into other languages so far.)
The guests who were invited from the town had had their dinner and left. All the relatives had also finished their dinner in two batches and some of them were looking for a place to sleep; some were dozing in their places as there were not enough beds for everyone; and some had just crawled up and had started yawning.
Outside, some of them were talking about the besan bada curry which they thought had gone bad. Some of them were suggesting that had a little more money been spent, a fish or a mutton dish could have been possible. A fish or a mutton dish could have been served to the guests from the bridegroom’s side. Some were worried about losing face with the bridegroom’s guests.
A relatively big room was decorated with utensils, mattresses, and all kinds of big and small dowries for Jema, the bride. The respected members of the town and the people who were close to the family were being shown the dowries given to Jema. Her father and her older sister Ruma were showing each and every piece to them.
When the bridegroom and his family did not arrive by eight o’clock that evening, a vehicle was rented and some people were sent to find out about the matter to Narasinghapur, the village of Jema’s in-laws-to-be.
Meanwhile, Jema was sitting silently in the corner of the large room where the dowries were being shown with her younger sister Soma and Purnima, one of her close friends and a few others. Her mother was very worried because the bridegroom had not yet arrived.
The band of musicians was waiting outside to go to the deity for the initial rites. They could not proceed with the ceremony because the bridegroom had not yet arrived and they were afraid to do the rites because then the girl may remain unmarried.
As the night slowly progressed, the laughter and joy of the house was slowly and steadily diminishing. The elders of the family were going out to the street and returning again in expectation of the bridegroom’s arrival but here disappointed several times. There was an unknown fear that was gripping everybody yet no one expressed anything.
It was not that Jema was not aware of it either. She, herself, was feeling very exhausted but it was a strange kind of exhaustion. Her eyes were closing and she wanted to go off to sleep in her seat. This exhaustion was not from today but had its roots in the distant past. Today there would be an end to that...hopefully.
You see, Jema had failed to be promoted from the eighth grade, even after several attempts. It was not that she was very weak in her studies but the circumstances in her life then put various hardships and barriers for her.
Her elder sister Ruma had gotten married by then. Ruma did not like to stay with her in-laws so she would go and live with her husband who was a teacher in Panikoili. In a year, she would stay for three months with her husband in Panikoili and then for the other nine months, she would stay at her parents’ place.
Jema would take care of the cooking at her parents’ place then. But when Jema was in the eighth grade, Ruma’s husband got transferred to Cuttack and Ruma then went and lived with him in Cuttack and never returned. So Jema failed in the eighth grade for three times.
She and Soma were in the same grade since childhood. They went for tuitions together. Even though Soma was one and half years younger than Jema, she was very clever. No one could compete with her.
One day when Jema was in grade two or grade three, her teacher was in a mood to read the palms of all the children whom he taught. Jema’s father was also present there that day. The teacher read everyone’s palm and predicted their future. Soma had the best things written on her palm. He predicted that she would gain name and fame; she would be very successful; she would make her parents proud. But her teacher told for Jema’s palm nothing was written about her career there. Is it all written in the hand? Then, why does not she have these bright letters on her hand?
After she failed in the eighth grade, Jema’s life changed. She was ashamed to be with the younger students. Even at home, Jema never had as much importance as Soma. After Ruma went to live in Cuttack with her husband, Jema had to do all the household chores. While someone wanted watery pulses, someone else wanted thick pulses. While someone wanted vegetable curry, someone else wanted fish curry. While someone wanted to eat white rice, someone else wanted hot chapattis. Mother never did anything; Jema had to take care of everything.
Maybe that’s why when she failed for the first time, though it was a surprise, there was nothing really anything surprising about it at all.
The next year was even worse. Even the familiar letters appeared unfamiliar. Algebra and geometry were just too difficult, as if they threatened her, tormented her and laughed at her incapability; as if they were not algebra or geometry but rather, people from an elite class. There seemed to be a great distance between Jema and them. As soon as she sat down to take an examination, her head would start reeling. Everything appeared dark and the letters seemed as if they were a net in the darkness. She confronted the examinations for two or three times like that.
That was the reason why Jema stopped going to school and unconditionally welcomed the responsibility of feeding everyone their favorite dishes. Some would teach her to cook and some would learn from her. She took to embroidery and stitched pictures of tigers, flower pots, welcome signs, and wedding notes in coloured threads and hung them all over the wall of the house. Her afternoons were occupied with making baskets and hats from sticks; pictures of peacocks and Lord Jaganath from glittering stickers; and purses from beads.
She would never compare herself with Soma, though. Soma was appearing for her matriculation examination then. Jema would do everything for her, giving her food at her table; making her bed; washing her clothes; and combing her hair -- some out of her choice, some out of resentment. Although she had no competition with Soma, whenever there were guests, her father would introduce her to them very proudly. Jema would feel a strange kind of torture as she passed on the cup of tea from behind the door.
Jema often thought, ‘Why is that I never suffer from anything? No tummy ache, no fever or headache; not even vomiting or diarrhea. At least I would get some attention if I suffered.’ She was just a burden on the family because she was dark and unattractive.
This drama of such a bride interview must have happened countless times with her:
What is you name?
What are your qualifications?
Can you read this?
Can you please walk there?
Can you please lift your saree and show your feet?
Can you let your hair loose? Your hair is long, but why is it so thin.
All these handicrafts, you have done?
What are these marks? Did you have some skin disease in childhood?
We have mud house. It needs to be painted and mopped every day.
We have a big family. We cook in big pots.
Do you know how to sing? Can you sing a line? Have you read the Ramayan and Mahabharat?
Do you know about the past life of Sikhandi?
What are all the dishes you can prepare?
Do you know how to make bundi Ladoo?
Can you fry rice?
Who is your favorite hero?
Many did not like her because she was dark. Her parents rejected many prospects as well. Some were rejected because they didn’t have any property and some because their grandfather was a labourer, of no or lower class.
That day, Jema could not put the thread into the needle. Her vision was blurred. It was as if there were thousands of holes in the needles. The darkness of the examination hall was coming over to her like a bunch of clouds or like a thick fog. Her eyes were as if she had taken in years of smoke from the wet wood in the kitchen. She could only see a smoky face and nothing beyond that. Suddenly when she got up from the place where she sat, her head started reeling. If she had not fallen down and injured her head on the door no one would have bothered to look at her. After that, she went to see the doctor and the doctor found out she had low blood pressure. “Are you not getting proper sleep? Are you worried about something? Anyway, take these medicines and you will be all right.”
Jema would rest for two days but she had to bear accusations along with her rest. Her mother could not look after the big household all by herself. So whenever she had to do the work, she would shout at her. Her aunt would come and cook for them. Jema’s mother did not get along at all with that lady , although she had wanted to adopt Jema as her daughter because none of her own children had survived. But Jema’s mother had refused to give her daughter for adoption and had proudly questioned that lady, “Can you feed my daughter? Can’t you see my children don’t like to eat all those traditional cakes? How can she live in your house?”
Yet her father had said, “It is all the same. Our daughter is your daughter. She is sleeping here only you want her to sleep there. She is playing in the common courtyard.”
After that, the aunt bore three children. At that point, she forgot all about Jema and concentrated on her own children. She even did not attend the wedding ceremony when Jema got married. Jema’s mother and aunt had fought six months back over the rope used in the well. Her mother did not invite her aunt and her aunt did not bother to come either. She did not even feel like having a look at Jema – the same Jema for whom she had once begged to adopt as her daughter.
Jema’s life was very sad and lonely just like the shadow of the tree. Her sister Soma, of course, had gone on to school. Some of Jema’s friends went on to school as well while some had gotten married. But once or twice in a month, Jema would be less lonely and sad when her cousin Niranjan, who studied in Bhubaneswar, would visit. As soon as she saw him, Jema would become elated and would feel a strange shiver all over her. Happiness? Excitement? Fear? She loved to talk to him. There was warmth in his light jokes. He used to get sweet paan. There was a certain pleasure in munching that sweet paan after food. She felt as if she was getting wet in the water of the stream when he looked at her. Was that love or infatuation or both? Jema used to give him beautiful embroidered handkerchiefs before he left to return to school.
During Jema’s wedding ceremony, Niranjan was the one running around and working the most, right from decorating the altar, fixing the tents, looking after the cooking and serving the food. He was the most worried when the bridegroom did not arrive till one o’ clock in the morning. He consulted with the elders to arrange for a vehicle to go and find out the whereabouts of the bridegroom and in between came inside and checked the well being of Jema.
By then, both of Jema’s younger brothers had become too tired sitting on the chair placed next to the altar. The womenfolk, who included the paternal and maternal aunts from the village, had started getting suspicious and the speculation began. “Is there any trouble in this marriage over dowry?” They were whispering from their seats on the floor of the house. However, Jema could hear everything clearly.
She understood her father had promised to give 20 grams of gold and a huge amount as a dowry, even though Jema knew that twenty grams of gold was not there in their house. After they had lost everything in the sales tax case, all her mother’s jewelry had been mortgaged, one by one, to stay afloat. Uncle had sold all his property he had in his share and all that he got as the eldest son. He had mortgaged a big plot of land in the city with the bank and arranged for the marriage of Jema. She had come to realize that she was not being given twenty grams of gold. However, that could not be the reason for the delay in the bridegroom’s arrival.
Jema’s mother had started sobbing in the kitchen. A neighbor lady sat next to her and consoled her, “Take a sip of water; you have been fasting throughout the day. Your throat must be dry. We have nothing to lose. The initial rites have not taken place. Some girls can’t even marry after the initiation of the rites. Why do you worry? There are so many marriages taking place. They may not have been able to get vehicles to come or they may have had some other problem. They must be on their way. Don’t worry. They have gone with a vehicle. They must be coming back with news. You don’t cry.”
Her mother could not stop crying. “I was telling they are not up to our mark. Don’t arrange there. My own daughter has brought me to this state. She said that I was dreaming. Now I must keep dreaming.”
Jema had had a strange dream at night. The dark yet handsome man was sitting on a chair in her brother’s room. A voice said, “He is your man; he is.” They looked like Siva and Parvati. Jema shared the strange dream with Soma the morning of her wedding day.
Her brother came back with news around three in the morning. It seems the bridegroom did not get leave. He did not get along with his senior. He reached his home from Raigada at ten in the night. He will finish the rites and come along with a few of his family members.
Suddenly there was life in the household! Outside, the musicians who had gone to sleep under the makeshift hut were woken up. Hulahuli, the pious sound made through the tongue, came out all together from four or five female voices.
Jema was sitting lifeless for a long time. She could not understand anything. They lifted her like a machine and started performing the rites. Someone was putting turmeric on her; someone else was giving her a bath; someone was joking; and someone came running and announced that the bridegroom had arrived.
It was the monsoon months now. The sky filled up with lightning and constantly reverberated with the sounds of thunder. It had started to drizzle and the wet ground was very slippery. It must have been sometime before the break of dawn but occasionally, the caws of the crows could be heard. Somehow Jema’s marriage rituals came to an end. But the bridegroom did not come over to have his dinner. He wanted money. The sky was getting brighter now and they were adamant to go back. One of the elders shouted, “We don’t want anything. Take out the ornaments and keep them with you. Just put a saree on her and we will take our daughter-in-law and go. If you cannot keep your words we don’t think you deserve to be our relative. Let’s depart.”
The bridegroom was not saying anything. Silence was perhaps the language of his mind. He did not eat or drink anything either, not even a glass of sweetened water.
However, Jema who was inside the house got all the news. The gold necklace from neighbour’s family was borrowed for a few days with the promise that it would be returned when the girl came back. Even then, the gold ornaments were not weighing twenty grams. Father went and got a few thousand rupees from somewhere in an effort to come good on the deal.
Jema lay flat on the mat. After coming from the altar, she had not eaten a single grain. Was it her dream or a hallucination now? She somehow came to realize her married life would never be happy -- never. She was constantly getting up to vomit and crying. Suddenly, she was covered with vomit and tears. Someone was pouring water on her head and someone was making her drink lemon water. They got her and made her sleep on the mat. Someone brought the table fan and fixed it next to her head.
After she regained her consciousness a bit, she waved her hand at Soma and asked her to come to her. She whispered into Soma’s ears- “Soma, I did not see this person I think I saw tonight in my dream. He was another person with a fair complexion and short hair. He had very calm eyes. But I can’t remember how his nose...was…How...?”
Before Soma could answer, Jema swam back to foggy smoke. There everything was obscure. She could see only an unclear conjugal prospect behind the murkiness, where the groom was parked with all possessions with wedding costume but there was no subsistence of herself anywhere around him. It was as if she was there like an article among the belongings. Did she ever dream of this man? Jema could feel, there was much scarce of air in this world.
(Translated by Gopa Naik
Edited by Paul McKenna)