"I could never in a hundred summers get tired of this." -- Susan Branch Quote Prompt, June
He sat cross-legged under the mango tree, his cows grazing peacefully around him. He wasn't quite leaning against the tree-trunk -- his slender brown torso was upright. His black curls seemed to dance to the tune he was playing on his flute.
My feet danced, too, as I passed by on the way to the river for my bath. I made up lyrics to harmonise with his melody.
"In a hundred summers," I sang. "In a hundred summers I could never get tired ..."
The music stopped. I heard his voice calling to me. "Where is my fair lady going, this early morning?"
"To the river, my dusky lord, to wash off the sins of yesterday."
"And what sins did you commit yesterday, young maiden?"
"None that I know of, but I must wash just to make sure."
He chuckled. "The innocent wash the sins they have not committed, while the guilty ..." He put his flute back to his lips and the clouds scurried to the lilt of the breeze that emanated.
"A hundred summers," I sang, as I splashed the clear river water over my hair. "In a hundred summers I could never get tired ..."
Indeed, I could never tire of that happy life, that village, those baths in the river, and the flirtatious cowherd and his divine melodies.
But my parents, egged on by the community matchmaker, had different ideas.
"You are sixteen! Sixteen! It has been three-and-a-half years since you came of age. People will think there is something wrong with you if we don't get you married soon."
Move to another village, to live with a stranger I'd be forced to call 'husband'? Go so far away that the bullock cart would never be harnessed for that journey again, once I was delivered with my virginity intact to the home of my in-laws?
"I'll never feed Dilkhush, the calf again. I'll never taste granny's sweet curd. I'll never bathe in that sparkling river, never again lift my voice in harmony with his flute ..."
As I was thinking this, my mother entered the room, carrying an earthenware pot. She sat next to me on the mat, put her hand into the pot, and started to smear my face with some yellow paste.
"Ma, what?" I protested, as she finished my face, grabbed my arm and rubbed the paste in vigorously.
"Turmeric paste, my darling. The boy and his family are coming to see you tomorrow. We must get your skin to glow." I squirmed, but she held on tight. It wasn't until she had slathered both my arms that she released me. "Now, be sensible, my daughter. He is a good man, from a good family. It is not everyday that a man like this comes along. You are lucky."
"Does he play the flute?"
My mother's slap stung me on the ear.
"What nonsense you talk! I shall tell your father."
"Tell him what?"
"Tell him that you fancy the cowherd's son, who plays the flute. Don't you think I haven't guessed. I am your mother."
"Well, then, why don't you arrange my marriage to the cowherd's son? I shall be happy then, and I won't have to go far away from you."
"I did not bring you up to marry a cowherd's son, my angel. You shall have glittering jewels and the finest clothes. You'll have maids to wait on you."
"And I'll have an ache in my heart for the one I love."
"What nonsense you talk. You will soon forget him. You'll forget us, too. You'll eat from golden plates ..."
"You want me to forget you because of golden plates?"
At this, my mother broke down and began to cry.
"That was a sin, my fair lady, making your mother cry."
They had kept a sharp eye on me, my parents, grandparents and brother, but I was smarter than all of them. Having given them the slip, I was now with him, under the mango tree. The sun was at its hottest, just prior to setting.
"All I did was to declare my love for you. Was that a sin?"
"Fortunately, my mother won't cry when I confess my love for you." He held out his hand and I grasped it. Our eyes met. A small smile played on his lips, and I blushed. Hand in hand, we walked to his hut.
His mother did shed tears, but they were tears of joy. She held me to her, sobbing, "I held you in these arms when you were two days old, and now I'm holding you as my son's bride!"
My parents and his had always been friends -- the friendship going back over two generations of living in the same village.
It was, therefore, with awkwardness and perhaps a touch of guilt that my mother ushered us in and gave his parents mats to sit on. I was left to sit on the floor in a corner. He came and sat beside me.
"We love her," his mother said. "When we heard you were arranging her marriage somewhere else ..."
"We would treat her as our own child. She is our own child," his father added. "And you'd still see her every day."
My mother hadn't gone to the kitchen to bring the customary offering of buttermilk for the guests. It was plain that they were not welcome, and that she and my father were going to put up a united front about this.
They were in our home for less than half an hour. My mother did not let me touch his parents' feet as they left. This was the biggest breach of etiquette, and a sure sign that all connection between the families was now cut off.
That night, my mother and grandmother pulled their mattresses to either side of mine, and my father and brother slept near the front door. My virginity was being closely guarded.
The strategic moment hadn't arrived yet.
My grandmother and I were peeping from the kitchen as my parents, grandfather and brother entertained my prospective husband and my prospective in-laws. When my mother signaled, my grandmother was to send me in with the snacks. As per custom, I had made all these myself -- my culinary skills would be carefully evaluated by our guests.
I had to admit they seemed to be nice people. The parents were comfortably roly-poly and laughed easily. The man himself was tall and broad-shouldered, with a deep, resonating voice. But he wasn't my dusky lord, my slender cowherd who played the flute under the mango tree.
"He would be perfect for Bhavani," I whispered to my grandmother, mentioning my cousin, her other granddaughter.
"Your mother said you've been talking a lot of nonsense. Now be quiet or they'll hear you outside."
"But I'm not going to marry him, and he's nice. We might as well have him in the family."
"Will you be quiet, girl? He has come to see you, not Bhavani. There, there, your mother has signaled. Now ... quickly ... he must not see your face at once."
She draped the corner of my saree* over my face. The golden tassels tickled my nose and I sneezed. "Shhhh," she admonished. She thrust the tray of snacks into my hands, and I walked to the outer room, my anklets softly rustling as I stepped gingerly forward.
I wasn't used to walking in that long saree. The veil over my face hampered my view. The tray was heavy. As I reached the outer room, I lost my balance, tripping over my saree. The tray flew out of my hands, and I fell headlong into a pair of strong arms.
My brother had already been standing there two seconds before my fall. He had known me all my life. He had sensed the hesitation in my footsteps, he had guessed I was about to trip.
My veil had gone haywire and was now entangled in the carved combs that were holding my ponytail in place. My mother, red with embarrassment, was trying to cover my face again. My brother helped me straighten up.
My prospective father-in-law let out a guffaw. His wife, after trying to control herself for a few seconds, gave way to a fit of giggles. Their son said, "Well, I couldn't do the traditional lifting of the veil, but I can truly say you're beautiful."
Caught off-guard by the ease of their reaction, I blurted, "You really are nice, you know. Bhavani would fit in so well in your family."
My mother was now trying to clap a hand over my mouth through the veil. But I didn't need to speak. My brother spoke. My brother, who had known me all my life and could sense when I was about to fall.
"Bhavani is our cousin. You would like her very much. You see, my sister wants to marry someone else."
There was a silence. Before anyone in my family could break it, the father spoke. "If her heart belongs to someone else, we must not interfere. Our home would not be a happy one, with a wistful damsel pining away in it. Where can I find Bhavani? I take it she isn't already spoken for."
My parents and grandfather sat motionless as my brother gave the guests Bhavani's particulars. My grandmother hadn't appeared out of the kitchen at all. Maybe she had fainted in there at my fall.
The guests left. My mother went to find my grandmother, to complain about the behavior of 'today's ungrateful children'. My father and grandfather, shaking their heads, went to lie down. My brother and I were left to pick up the fallen food and crockery.
"Thank you," I whispered to him.
"Silly girl. But as long as you are thanking me, you can do so twice."
"How do you think you were able to escape yesterday? Did you actually assume you had done it yourself, without inside help? You could've got away last night, too, if you had tried. I purposely ..."
He couldn't speak any more because I was hugging him so hard.
It was a double-wedding, and the most auspicious place for the exchange of flower-garlands and taking of the vows was under the mango tree. The rituals done, my brother began to sing, "In a hundred summers, you shall never tire, you shall never tire ... For the next seven births, you shall be together ... be together ... never get tired of each others' smile."
And Bhavani smiled at her broad-shouldered groom, and I smiled at my slender one. "Never tire, never tire ... in a hundred summers, for the next seven births, we shall never tire ..."
*Saree - unstitched garment worn by women.
Author's note ▼