Wholesalers and traders from Paithan were to arrive in a few weeks, carrying gold and goods for barter. We would exchange our cotton for whatever they carried. The bales of cotton had to be ready on time! Work was at its peak at the fields! But I sat by the banks of the river Godavari, worried and agitated.
“What will I do? What will happen to poor Vrunda? She is just a child, just seven years old and getting ready to marry Satya, our neighbour’s son, next month after the traders’ market.”
“Then again, I had warned her from playing with five-year olds on the streets. Times were bad and men, in Sauviragram, had lust and evil in their eyes.”
Vrunda was my daughter’s little girl who had taken her mother’s life at birth. My only daughter, Dhara, was eight when she got married. Charmed by Dhara’s beauty, twenty year old Surya, who was visiting Sauviragram from Paithan during the traders’ market, came home to request for Dhara’s hand in marriage. Surya was a wealthy trader and we could not refuse our Dhara the prosperity that the alliance would bring.
The day after the market closed, Surya married Dhara with the blessings of Lord Ganesh. Dhara’s father, Siddha, and I blessed our daughter. Though beyond our means, we gifted Dhara as much as we could, in clothes and jewels, to match Surya’s status.
In Paithan, Dhara served Surya well, made home for him and performed her religious and wifely duties. When she came of age at fourteen, the almighty blessed her womb.
Dhara prayed fervently to Goddess Parvati for an heir to continue Surya’s family name. Surya kept her indoors and performed pujas to save her from the evil eye. The glow on her face and the position of her belly confirmed Dhara’s prayers for a boy.
Soon the day of the baby’s birth arrived. Dhara woke up at dawn with water all over her saree. Surya’s mother called her local friends to help, but two hours later and no pain had started. Surya was sent to call Panna dai. She brought some herbs and drinks for Dhara. After 15 minutes, labour pain, finally, started. After six hours of labour and pushing and pressing, a baby finally pushed itself out. Unfortunately, the baby was a girl.
A messenger was urgently sent to Sauviragram.
Dhara did not survive child birth. Six hours of labour and the sorrow and loss of the family’s heir reduced Dhara to a failure. A wreckage of a body refused to fight the heavy bleeding that had started post delivery. Panna dai could not contain the bleeding for long. Dhara gave up that night.
When Siddha and I reached Dhara’s house the next afternoon, Surya handed a crying Vrunda into my hands and told me that Dhara had been cremated. With my daughter’s ashes and an infant in my arms, Siddha and I returned to Sauviragram.
I loved Vrunda. I took care of her as my own daughter. Fed her, bathed her and, as she grew up, taught her to be a good wife. Her skin, her eyes, her hair reminded me of Dhara, and Surya’s better background had given a sharper edge to Vrunda’s features.
In the markets of Sauviragram, she would stand out as a dove among pigeons. As she turned seven, I encouraged her to stay indoors, but a seven year old was a child.
One fate less day, Vrunda had gone to the market with Siddha to Sethji’s godaam, where cotton from the entire village was stored till the seasonal traders’ market. Sethji was talking to a royal guard. In a few weeks, Raigad’s king was to travel to Jalna and would stop over at Sauviragram for the traders’ market.
As the guard spoke with Sethji, Siddha unloaded some sacks of cotton. While Vrunda played with her twirling skirt next to Siddha, there were a pair of evil eyes looking at Vrunda from across the street, eyes that looked at Vrunda’s clothes and features, the eyes of a minister that were visually touching every part of Vrunda’s body from a distance.
Vrunda and Siddha returned home oblivious to the happenings at the godaam. That evening while Siddha was at the fields and Vrunda was milking our cow, a royal guard arrived at our door step.
“An important message from the great king of Raigad!” he announced. I felt honoured and anxious.
The guard looked around, perhaps for the man of the house. “My husband’s not here; he’s at the fields.”
Now, more at ease, he whispered,
“Is there a girl in this house?” My heart skipped a beat.
“Yes, my granddaughter, Vrunda.”
“The minister saw her at the market. The minister wants her.”
“What does that mean?”
“The minister saw the girl in the market and has taken a fancy to her.”
“She is only seven years old and is to marry next month.”
“Then, there is enough time” he smirked.
“No, I will not allow this, I will not let this happen. I will tell the great King of Raigad.”
“No one will believe you, Lady. You against a minister? You, a peasant from a distant province? You, from a caste that the royalty couldn’t give two hoots about? Lady, you are a little worm for him. The king of Raigad has big wars to wage, big enemies to fight, big conquests to win.”
“The king is just; I will go to his court.”
Smirking, he whispered, “Haven’t you heard, the king likes a little pleasure too?”
My knees felt week, and I fell to the floor.
“The minister will be visiting Sauviragram in two weeks again. I will come and let you know the time and place to bring the girl.”
“Any word to anyone, and the minister will destroy you and your family”, that said the guard left. My head in my hands, I cried and cried till, at dusk, I heard Siddha call out Vrunda outside the house.
I, quickly, wiped away my tears. I could not let Vrunda or Siddha sense any of this till I understood it myself.
That night I could not sleep. I woke up and looked at my little angel Vrunda, walked around the house, stared outside the window, looked at the cows and, then, looked at Vrunda again till dawn.
Next morning, I lied to Siddha about being unwell and did not go to the fields. Instead, I sat on the banks of the river Godavari and felt sick with anticipation and anxiety. I needed to find a solution.
“If Siddha gets to know, he will do something drastic, we will be destroyed, like the guard said.”
“We can’t leave Sauviragram, where will we go?”
“We can’t hide away for a few days, either. The minister will come back with a vengeance. Moreover, we’ll miss the traders’ market and lose out on selling our harvest. With no money, what will we eat next year?”
“Neither can I tell the neighbours. If word of this gets out in the village, no one will marry Vrunda. After all, who wants to risk rivalry with a minister?”
“I had to come up with a solution; I had only two weeks. I could not fail my Dhara’s daughter, I could not fail my Dhara. I failed her once, by getting her married to a rich man and leaving her to be treated with disrespect; leaving her to be used for her womb; leaving her to die. I cannot fail her again. I will fight for my Dhara; I will fight for Vrunda.”
I spent the next weeks thinking and worrying and thinking and worrying and thinking and worrying, but I had no solution. The two weeks were now nearing completion, and traders from Paithan and neighbouring provinces had started pouring in to Sauviragram.
There was no more time for worry. The dreaded day was here. I saw the king’s guards in the market. “The minister must have come too. I need to rush home and get Vrunda to a safe place” I thought.
It was already mid-day; the sun was shining right above our heads and our shadows were becoming small. I ran home and grabbed Vrunda, who was playing with children on the streets, and hid her in the cow shed. The little angel followed the instructions with confusion written all over her innocent face.
As anticipated, within an hour or two, the guard was at our doorstep.
“Call your granddaughter.”
“She has gone to her father’s village.”
“Don’t lie to me lady, I saw her in the market with your husband in the morning.”
“She went at mid-day.”
“Lady, it is better you cooperate with the minister. We know your granddaughter does not visit her father. We asked about her in the village.”
“Anyway, the minister wants her in his resting chamber tomorrow at mid-day.”
That night, I did not sleep.
The next morning, I volunteered to transport the bales of cotton in our tonga to Sethji’s godaam, so Siddha could finish what was left of harvesting at the fields. I served the morning meal, made a small prayer of forgiveness as I saw Siddha leave and held Vrunda in my arms and wept.
I, then, tied Vrunda in a sack and loaded her on the tonga along with other bales of cotton. At the godaam, I helped Sethji’s boys unload the sacks, making sure that I had the one with Vrunda. After keeping the sack at a safe corner, where no one would suspect any difference in shape or weight, I headed to the resting chambers in my tonga.
I reached the royal resting chambers near the banks of the river Godavari. The guard who met me the previous day was waiting at the entrance to the minister’s chamber.
“Where is Vrunda?” he whispered.
“I have come to meet the minister, let me in, I need to talk to him.”
He checked with the minister and allowed me in.
The chamber was big and housed necessary luxuries for a minister. As I entered, the minister asked the maids to leave. He was disappointed seeing me alone.
“Where is the girl?” he bellowed.
“Please Mantriji, leave my little girl. She is only seven and set to get married soon.” I fell at his feet, begging for mercy, but he did not listen.
With a kick, he threw me across the room. His anger rising.
But, I was determined to seek his mercy. I fell back at his feet. “Mantriji, she will be ruined. She is to get married soon. Who will marry her after this? You are great, your mercy is great, please spare my little girl.”
“Lady, bring me the girl. Women are meant to please men. You peasant women should be honoured to be with a mantri. Her worth will increase, lady.” Laughing, he kicked me again.
I fell back at his feet and cried and begged for mercy as he laughed. He was beginning to enjoy my helplessness. He was beginning to enjoy my body, ego, respect fallen at his feet. His eyes slowly measured my body. I bundled up. I began trembling and shaking in shame, sorrow, defeat and helplessness.
I could not let my Vrunda through this fate; I could not fail my Dhara’s daughter, my little angel.
I had no alternative left.
“Mantriji, take me instead.”
“What? You? You old bale of cotton? What are you worth? Is there any comparison between you and that delicate little thing called Vrunda? You, used old hag.”
“Bring me that little flower to devour. Don’t worry, lady, I will enjoy it slowly.” I cringed and seethed in anger. I was enraged; I was desperate.
He left me no choice. I could only see darkness around me and Dhara and Vrunda in it.
As he walked over to pour himself a drink, I got up from the floor, pulled out the sickle hidden under my saree, and stabbed him in the back. As I jerked out the sickle, the minister’s blood and flesh splashed across my face. I stabbed him again, and jerked the sickle out again. His face turned pale, the shock, remorse, pain and suffering written across his face was beautiful. I felt avenged, cleansed in his blood. Finally, I felt light; the burden of my worry was lifted. Peace was beginning to descend into my heart.
When the guards rushed in, I stood still in my accomplishment.
The judgement at the king’s court was pronounced and to be executed within the day.
As I walked to the gallows, I sent up a silent prayer to my darling Dhara “I have avenged your death, your honour, your dignity.”
“Rest in peace my dear angel, Vrunda. No minister will want you for your body, ever again.”
This was my entry for the TOI WriteIndia contest.
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© 2015 by Donna Abraham
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