Once upon a time......

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A girl, an incident, a way of life, India in 1930. A time when tribals, untouchables, castes and Nobility was well demarcated.

Submitted: June 11, 2019

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Submitted: June 11, 2019



1930 Baradiya village 90 miles from the coast of Porbundar.

Thuthu was peering from the gaps in the tightly packed hay wall, eyes and nose watering. Vaghra and Gattu had climbed up high on the Imli tree, plucking, peeling, eating, the sour sweet fruit, legs dangling. A bright pink plastic whistle hung around Vaghra's neck, ready to be blown if they were seen turning back. Giri, in her bright red sari, tied between her two bulging stomach bands, squatted next to the water pump, was vigorously scrubbing the two sheets that could now be used by the boys for extra warmth on colder nights. Looking at her chubby but flat face, which had been around for 32 years but looked 20, one would think she was eating sweets not scrubbing sheets. Her heart was singing.
His heart was breaking with every heavy step he took, taking her away from her known hell to an unknown one, with new spirits and unknown fires. But he could not bear it any more. He needed some peace. The money was short. The growing boys ate much. Giri was always angry would not put out anymore. "She is nice, the mistress, and if you work hard and well, you will get to eat curd every day, yes no?" She stopped her dragging feet and turned to look up at him. His gut twisted looking into her big limpid black pools, about to overflow. He turned away to spit; pulled phlegm hard from his throat and spat on the hot mud. It spluttered and at once started baking. He tugged at her reluctant hand and started walking towards the Haveli.
She didn't want to eat curd every day, she didn't want to sleep on a soft bed, she didn't want to look out of big windows.
She didn't mind the beatings every few days from Giri, always in the morning after Bapa left for work. By the time he was back in the evening Giri always cleaned up the tell tale signs of her frustration. Some days it wasn't so bad, if Thuthu got in the way. Vaghra and Gattu never bothered. But then it had always been so; at cooking time it was the stick used to stir the broth, while going to the well it was the shiny brass pot, sometimes a chappal, and on fasting Mondays, a hot iron rod. Ranjhi tried to pay attention to the sound, every time, different every time, depending on the object, body part and intensity; not of the crime, but of Giri's anger… dhud, woosh, kachh, phat, phat chhirrrr...this one had the smell of burnt flesh as well.

The villagers never called her Ranjhi; absuki it always was. Short for Abshukan,(bad luck), her mother breathed her last the moment Ranjhi breathed her first. 'Khai gayi ma nay' (She ate up her mother!) They didn't mind that much, many women had died during childbirth, many will continue to; But that night a fire started. A fire that started in her father's house; crept slowly along, hid in the mud houses, and then as it breathed more air, befriended more trees, it blazed ahead into the sugarcane fields, unknowing and unconcerned of the wreckage it caused; for 2 days and 2 nights it raged; then suddenly disappeared into the night. It didn't touch Ranjhi; her mother did not need a pyre; 24 homes razed. 67 +1 lives lost for her to live.
Her father fulfilled a promise made in the throes of passion and married Giri after 13 days of mourning. Ranjhi needed a mother he told the villagers. They nodded like they believed him. Giri was due any day. 10 days later Giri survived, her son died.
But Giri's breasts were unaware of her loss and rivulets of nectar flowed down her full breasts and dried on her etiolated, worn out body. Raghwa asked Giri to feed Ranjhi. Giri refused. Raghwa cradled Ranjhi through the night with cotton in his ears, ignoring Giris pleads to fill her void. Giri galumphed to Raghwa and yanking Ranjhi from his arms put her to her breast. Ranji refused the offering. If she did latch on, her gums would dig into Giri's flesh so hard that she would fling the child away screaming in pain. She would nurse her nipple with gud and turmeric, then as soon as she felt some relief, she would go and shake up Ranjhi, "Saali, mari jati kem nah?!!" die, die, die. All her pent up frustration and anger would slowly release as Ranjhi's head shook side to side, up and down; her body rattled, bone against bone.
Ranji's mouth, a toothless, black, bottom less hole, would gasp and scream and screech; for food, for love, for something…. But she didn't die. She grew up making it worse by her blossoming beauty.
"Aye aye Kai pooooo che!!" Its cut! "Chal chalpakad re.." look look it's stuck in Popatlal's antennae". It was Uttaran. The festival of kites. The only time lines were blurred and crossed, when the schedule castes were allowed to fly kites with the rest of the villagers and nobles. But of course, more out of terror than respect, they never cut the fancy kites with long tails flown by the nobility. If it has a tail, it was nobility, as simple as that, they would say and laugh with open, tobacco filled mouths.
The sky was dotted with happy and colourful shapes, soaring, dancing, the air filled with shrieks of cheer and cries of disappoint. A kite was cut loose and it slowly started swaying and falling, puzzled, like a soaring bird shot in mid-air; and then hope! Saved by a TV antennae! Hope!
Ranjhi was looking up with her hand shielding her eyes from the winter sun that glared with all its might, as if making up for the few hours that it would be up in the sky. Short scorching days, long freezing nights. She tucked her little potli, which held all her worldly possessions, tightly under her armpit. Hope, yes….maybe, yes.She took her dupatta covering her breasts, which in the last year had blossomed from two small plums into large soft Alphonsos. With it she wiped her sweat and tied a knot on a corner; a Mannat that it would be true for her too. Caught somewhere and saved by someone.
The Haveli loomed in front of her, white and glaring. It wasn't that large and she had seen it almost everyday, but today it seemed like it touched the sky and covered most of the village. It was made of large white marble slabs to keep it cool in the hot summers but in winters the family had to light coal Sighdis and slip under thick Rajais. Ranji ran her slightly trembling hands over her kurta and dupatta and pulled out her Salwar which was stuck in her bum. She should have asked Giri for a panty; a nervous giggle escaped her nose, thinking of Giri's reaction. Raghwa slapped her back and said, "Sidhi dor rehjay, your nakhras won't be tolerated here". Were they? Ever? Anywhere? Ranjhi thought. "here comes Choti Malkin, touch her feet and eyes down". Chunri, 50, dressed in so many colours and jewellery that she could be mistaken for a haathgaadi, a travelling store cart. She could stand in the market place and sell her wares, Ranjhi thought. She had, at one time, seduced Bappadada with her wares! She swayed her hips such that it made her skirt swish and swirl, side to side and up and down, like little Ranjhi's head, hinting her plebeian roots. The brown stained teeth as she smiled confirmed the hint.
She was 18 when Bappadda spotted her in his sugarcane fields. He was 34 then, married. He came often and she could feel his eyes on her while she cut sugarcane. One day she saw him walking towards her. Every person has at least one moment in their lives when there is an opportunity to make a decision that will change their life, forever. But only few see it. Giri was one of them. She hinged her skirt lower and started to walk towards the denser, unharvested part of the field. She slowly started unbuttoning her Choli blouse. He was walking faster now. She looked back and looking afraid, started running. He called out "Aaye Chori, wait girl" She put her foot on a stone and grazing herself against a tree, tore open her blouse as she fell to the ground. She shut her eyes and lay still on her back. He came running and saw her lying on her back, fainted, with one breast out of her torn open Choli. Her luscious raven black hair strewn across her face and ground, her stomach flat, her nipple erect. He just stood there, watching her. He kneeled beside her, put his tongue to her nipple. She moaned softly . He sucked away at her breast, harder, and then harder, pulling her to him. She always kept track of her monthly cycle; didn't want to be stuck with the tribal men she met in the fields. But this time it was different. It was Ratan Singh Rathod. He was already pushing his dhoti on to one side and pulling his pride out. The time was not right for her. Still 5 days to go. With a strong hand and an outstretched arm she pulled him to her breast again. She arched herself up towards  him, writhed and twisted and moaned under him. And he did not need to enter her……He moaned and rolled off. Ok, she thought, so he's not as much fun as the others but just as well. She got up, started crying and ran off, covering herself with her Dupatta. After that he came to the fields every day but she stayed away from him, with the other workers. He kept looking longing at her. She smiled on day 4. On day 5,6,7 and 8 she moved away from the workers and he followed her to the same spot as day 1. Again he wasn't what she was used to, But it was Ratan Singh Rathod and once his old man dies become Bappadada, the most powerful man in the village.
Her pride, her son, Lodku was with her; tall and fair and handsome, like his father, Bappadada. But somewhere behind that aristocratic face lurked his mother's crassness; an appealing rakishness.
'Bappadada ni jai ho! ' shouted Raghwa a little too enthusiastically. May Bappadada live long; and bent to bow. Ranjhi touched Chunri's feet… pretty white feet, with henna designs, in red  mojhdies, next to her dark, dirty, cracked feet in blue turned black rubber chappals. Oh oh a new tear, fifth tear….. Lodku was looking at her breasts which were peeking out of her low cut kurta. 
Giri always made Ranjhi’s clothes short, tight and low cut. Always got half a metre less than told by the tailor and asked him to manage. This had 3 benefits, for Giri of course 1) material cost less. 2) tailor charged lesser for shorter kurtas.(giri had made him see reason) 3) Ranjhi's food intake under control. (No new one stitched if old one got tight). It was the other way round for her sons. They all walked around looking like they were shirts hanging on a clothes line, with their heads doubling for a black clothes pin. Giri kept feeding them and they soon stepped down from the clothes line to walk around in fitted shirts. And then they were hand me downs for the younger ones! uttaran. Again, yes. but that Uttaran was a ‘kite festival’ and this uttaran is ‘hand me downs’.
As she straightened she saw him looking. He saw that she saw him looking. He looked away. She didn’t, but pulled up her dupatta to cover herself.
"Chal andar" Chunri said with a flair she had practiced and mastered but was still unable to do in front of the family. Jealous bitches, all of them. She knew all their deep secrets, she had heard their dark whispers behind colourful glass tube iridescent curtains. She could..But not yet..... Ranjhi walked in behind her without glancing back at her father. Lodku walked off to his car trying to hide the rising sensation in his crisp white dhoti. Raghwa noticed, like father like son he thought, sighed in relief and walked back home. Ranjhi would not be coming back home. 



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