By Manpreet Rehal
Naseeb Kaur stepped out of the ramshackle faded blue bus. Fine reddish dust immediately coated her sandal-clad feet, but her toes didn’t cringe back, there was a comfortable familiarity in the earth of her childhood. Squinting under the harsh glare of the midday sunlight, she looked around for a familiar face, but saw none.
The village bus-stand near the huge banyan tree hadn’t changed much in the twenty years that she had been away, apart from a few additional food stalls. But beyond, she could make out the modern changes in the sand-toned, flat-roofed landscape since she left the Indian village of Abuwaal, for England as a young bride.
“I wonder if anyone will recognize me now,” thought Naseeb to herself. Her unmade up face was smooth and chiseled and the tall slim profile belied her forty-something years. She wore the stark, white knee-length cotton tunic and loose trousers that set her aside as a widow. The mandatory plain white muslin chunni – Punjabi headscarf was securely draped on her head and around her shoulders.
Naseeb Kaur helped the old bus conductor lower her huge blue suitcase as he struggled to bring it down the side of the bus. It was Mid-June and the annual monsoon was overdue. The sun shone with vengeance, scorching the harvested plains and people alike. Wiping the sweat that trickled down the sides of her face with her white chunni, she made her way to the weathered stone platform beneath the coolness of the old Banyan.
Turning around to the sound of her pet name, she saw her younger brother, Deep Singh, rushing towards her. In a single glance, she took in his deep blue turban, weathered face, salt, and pepper beard. He looked older than his 35 years. They embraced silently, crying tears of joy, sorrow, and everything in between, for all the years that they hadn’t been there for one another.
“Let’s hurry home, this God-forsaken heat will kill us!” he jostled, wiping the tear from his face and picking up her suitcase. “The clouds gather and disperse in an instant, not a single drop of rain,” he complained. “By the way, Billo and the rest can’t wait to see you”.
“Hmm. I can see that you’re still so enamoured by that cat-eyed lass after all these years,” she teased.
“There you go again. I didn’t think you’d still bully me now that I am a fully grown man! Don’t forget that I too have some scores to settle with you. You didn’t come home when mother died or even to attend my wedding! ,” retorted Deep, and they laughed together.
They were both silent as the jeep made its way around the dry potholes in the mud road. Deep glanced at his sister and wished he had been old enough to stand by her when she needed him. Life had not been kind to her. She had spent two empty decades in a harsh foreign country, barren and unloved. He saw the emptiness in her liquid gold eyes; the same void that he had sensed as a child the day she got married. He also knew that the recent loss of her husband had nothing to do with it.
As they drove through the dusty village to the haveli – the ancestral home where several generations of her family had lived and farmed, images of her childhood and youth flashed through her mind, unleashing a kaleidoscope of nostalgic joy and heart-wrenching emotions. Arriving home, Naseeb alighted from the jeep and found herself a little overwhelmed as she was introduced to all the children in the family.
“This is your aunt Seebo,” gushed the bubbly Billo, “and these are Kiran, Pinky, Nanoo….”
Naseeb acknowledged all her nieces and nephews and hoped that she would remember their names in future. Then she walked to the middle of the stone courtyard, where her father would be sitting on a woven bed. The wobbly bed had now been replaced with a cane sofa. She fell to his feet, burying her face in his lap into the white muslin folds of his tunic. His six-foot frame seemed to have shrunk and the sun-battered brown face hidden in his white beard was wrinkled almost beyond recognition. Roordh Singh placed his hand upon his only daughter’s head and stroked it. He had always been the gentler parent.
“Seebo, I thought I would die without meeting you again,” he held her face up looking and touched her cheeks. “I married you off my child, but I didn’t send you to exile, why didn’t you ever come visit us all these years?” Her father touched her face and shoulders, his cheeks were wet, but his eyes seemed blank. It took Naseeb a few moments to realize that he was now blind. She sobbed silently.
Her sister in law, Billo ushered her to sit beside him while special snacks were served with fresh cold buttermilk. No sooner had word of Naseeb’s arrival spread in the village than people begun to flock to the haveli to offer their condolences for the recent loss of her husband in England.
The men spoke to her father and brother while she sat silently, as was customary. The women all kept saying, “Poor woman, if only God had given her child or two to offer her support, now she is all alone…”
What irony – Naseeb her name, meant fate. By twilight, she was completely exhausted by their pity. As she lay in bed to rest in the late afternoon, sleep evaded her and her thoughts slipped into the past.
After years of silently tolerating life with a self-centred and abusive husband, Naseeb was numb. She and her husband Ajit had never seen anything eye to eye. They had been as different as day and night – a veritable mismatch by all standards, despite having their birth charts declared auspicious by the village astrologer. And to make things worse, there had been no children to bridge the chasm between them. Ajit never went for any medical tests, but she still bore the stigma of being barren even when the doctors had declared her normal.
Talking of ending the marriage was taboo where she came from, so she never thought of it. The inbred Indian dictum about marriage being a lifelong commitment, kept her plodding on, though from time to time, Ajit would threaten to seek annulment so as to marry another woman who would bear his offspring. His sudden death had greatly confused her. On one hand, she felt compassion for the man who had been her husband and on the other hand, she couldn’t believe that God had finally freed her of her tormentor. Guilt and emptiness engulfed her. She had longed for her own kin, hence deciding to travel to India after two decades.
“I made your favourite dessert, sister Seebo,” said Billo, her soft voice cutting through Naseeb’s reverie. Billo served the kheer- traditional cardamom flavoured rice pudding sprinkled with slivered almonds in small steel bowls.
After the evening meal, her father had retired to his bed that had been laid out in the courtyard. During the Indian summer, it made complete sense to sleep in the outdoors to keep cool, even at night. When Naseeb had first told her English neighbours about the timeless practice, they were shocked by the very idea of sleeping in the open. Ajit, had been angry and embarrassed by her innocent revelations.
“These ‘goras ’ , whites, think we are primitive, why give them a chance to make more fun of us?” he had scolded.
Later on, Naseeb joined her brother and his family on the rooftop, just like old times. She gazed at the stars that shone above brightly as she chatted with her brother and his wife. She was about to doze off when Billo interjected, talking to Deep.
“Hey Ji, the neighbour’s wife was telling me that Sidhu is also back from Canada … in fact, he has been around for almost two weeks. She said it doesn’t look like he intends to go back to his Canadian wife. Tch, I still don’t understand why our people want to marry their sons and daughters off into families abroad, all in the name of making worldly progress. No one is happy. Look at you, Sister Seebo,” ambled on Billo, “you didn’t see a single day of happiness in your marriage…”
Billo might have continued to verbalize her naïve but blatant observations if her husband hadn’t nudged her sharply, but Naseeb missed that bit, her mind was far away.
Sleep evaded her as images of Sidhu surged through her mind, her heart tightening as she relived the last time she had seen him, the unspoken anger that had smouldered in his dark eyes. She had tried to explain to him how her father had fixed her marriage to the son of a Punjabi family in England.
“You could have told him about us!” he had shouted. But it would have been utterly dishonourable for her to go against her father’s word. They had argued bitterly and she had neither seen nor spoken to Sidhu since that day.
An attempt to take her formidable mother into confidence had backfired. When she had mentioned Sidhu, she was rewarded with a stinging slap and that was the end of it. The guilt and remorse gnawed at her soul, but she had to surrender to the customary arranged marriage. Within a month she was given away as a bride and transplanted to cold, gloomy England, thousands of miles away, and she had never brought Sidhu’s name to her lips again, except in private moments of anguish.
At dawn, as soon as the first rays of the sun lit the horizon, Naseeb bathed, dressed in another set of white clothing, grudgingly drank her cup of over-sweetened tea and set off.
“I am going to the Temple for my morning prayers,” she told Billo.
“Are you going to walk?” asked Billo, surprised. “Why don’t you wait? Deep Ji will drive you there in the jeep after breakfast,” she suggested.
“Thanks, but I’d rather walk,” she said as she hurried out through the huge brass-studded wooden doorway, paying no attention to Billo’s futile pleas.
The priest had just finished reciting the morning prayers when Naseeb entered the Temple and prostrated to pay her respects. The serenity calmed her nerves. Then, with a determined step, she began to walk towards the canal bridge. It was as if her feet were carrying her there of their own accord, powered by an urgent inner will. Past the school, she attended as a child, the neglected old mosque, through the sown wheat-fields and by the ‘haunted’ well. Echoes of laughter from the past rang in her ears and memories of stolen moments accompanied her.
Naseeb felt his presence even before she set her eyes on his tall, lean frame, leaning against the rusty bridge railing. A huge cloud shadowed the early morning sun, muting the light slightly. Intuitively, Sidhu turned his gaze towards the dusty road and felt a lump in his throat. He had known that she would come. She stopped at the end of the bridge, her face devoid of expression. He moved towards her and stopped at arms’ distance.
Naseeb and Sidhu stared for a very long moment, silently drinking in one another with their eyes. Time and hardship in a foreign country had taken toll on Sidhu too – his olive skin was fairly lined, especially at the corners of his dark eyes, now clouded with emotion. There was no need for any exchange of words, their eyes spoke. Warm and tender. Then gently he took her hands in his and she looked down at them. The huge yellow topaz ring she remembered so well was still on his finger.
“How have you been,” asked Naseeb, breaking the deafening silence.
“I am still standing where you left me …” uttered Sidhu.
Suddenly, a gust of wind swirled around them, flapping their clothes and raising dust to their eyes. The sweet scent of rain filled the air even before the first huge drops hit the thirsty earth. They both looked up, towards the sky.
The Heavens had opened up at last. The odd sensation of cool rain mingling with hot tears played upon Naseeb’s cheeks. Their souls quenched, Sidhu and Naseeb were drenched within moments, but they were oblivious to it all, even to the red mud that splattered their sandal-clad feet and white pantaloons. Together, they walked hand in hand towards the village temple. Reunited at long last.