In this exclusive extract from her stirring novel about the plight of widows in pre-independence India, Bapsi Sidhwa evokes yearnings of Chuiya – a child bride who is abandoned at a widows’ ashram in Benares after her fifty-year-old husband dies – for joyous life on the occasion of Holi, a festival synonymous with exuberance and spontaneity of feelings.
The sound of celebrations, accompanied by the pounding of dual-ended dholaks, rang out around Chuyia. The smoky smell of incense hung in the air as wisps of smoke and coloured dust-motes swirled about the women. Chuiya was decked out as a little Krishna by the adoring widows for Holi, the festival of colour. Her forehead had been decorated with a yellow ‘V,’ and her eyes and brows outlined by a series of white dots. The striped blue-and-yellow scarf tied around her head like a turban gave her an air of rakish exuberance, which was a bit at odds with the sadness in her eyes. She missed Kalyani.
Chuiya heard Shakuntala calling out for her, and then Shakuntala was kneeling in front of her with a tray full of coloured powders. She grabbed a fistful of gaudy pink and applied swathes of it on Chuiya’s cheeks and chin. It was as if she were determined to draw a clown’s cheerful smile on the young girl’s face
Chuiya heard Shakuntala calling out for her, and then Shakuntala was kneeling in front of her with a tray full of coloured powders. She grabbed a fistful of gaudy pink and applied swathes of it on Chuiya’s cheeks and chin. It was as if she were determined to draw a clown’s cheerful smile on the young girl’s face. Chuiya looked like a joker. Succumbing to Shakuntala’s ministrations and the joyful atmosphere around them, Chuiya was beaming by the time Shakuntala was done with her. Then it was Chuiya’s turn to decorate Shakuntala, which she did with an exuberant application of colour to her face. Shakuntala took Chuiya by the hand and led her to the centre of the courtyard to take her place in the throng of dancing widows.
Shedding petals from the thick garland of pink-and-white flowers that swung from her neck and the miniature garlands that circled her arms and ankles, Chuiya danced with the widows. The shorn women carried platters filled with colours and painted the air with clouds of powder as they lumbered about awkwardly, their faces, feet and saris a bizarre montage from the many hues flung into the air. It looked as if the ground itself had turned ochre from the sloping rays of the sun.
Chuiya took the wooden flute given to her by Shakuntala and carefully held it sideways, flush to her lips. Her elbows stuck out as she placed one foot on her knee, and standing on one foot, adopted the stylized posture of Krishna’s statues. Playing out her role as Lord Krishna incarnate, she hopped in the circle formed by the widows and then, dancing up to them, romanced each in turn. Even Kunti had a smile on her face.
Chuiya stole away from the group and approached Madhumati, who was sitting to one side of her takth watched the widows frolic with a proprietary and benevolent air. The old woman’s eyes sparkled with merriment as she smiled at Chuiya. Chuiya chose the same shocking pink Shakuntala had applied to her face and cheekily rubbed it all over Madhumati’s face before darting off. Madhumati’s head wobbled on the folds of her wattled neck as she swayed beatifically and clapped in time to music.
The sounds of the dholaks and of firecrackers popping travelled across the calm waters of the grey-brown Ganga to Kalyani and Narayan in their small boat. They were headed upstream toward the main ghats of the city. Kalyani sat behind the oarsman, facing Narayan. A gentle breeze stirred in her hair and blew wisps into her face. After a while, she wet her hand and ran it over the unruly tufts of her badly cut hair to smooth it down.
“Don’t do that,” Narayan said. ‘You look even more beautiful with your hair mussed up.’
Kalyan smiled and, looking at Narayan out of the corner of her eyes, slowly ran her fingers through her hair so that it lifted off her head and shook the uneven tufts free. Narayan could not take his eyes off her. She looked radiant, content; and as a bud touched by the sun blooms, she flowered in the caress of her gaze. “Don’t look at me all the time. It makes me shy,” she said, discomfited by his gaze.
Narayan turned his head away slightly and removed his dreamy eyes to the horizon, to the pink clouds banked against the deepening blue evening sky.
But outside the orbit of his adoring gaze, Kalyani wilted. ‘No, look at me,’ she said, reaching out to touch his face. ‘I am prettier than the clouds.’
‘You are,’ Narayan agreed, charmed by the change in her. Already her diffidence was being replaced by a winsome confidence. Them pretending to mull over the question, he teased, ‘But are you as lovely as the moon?’
‘Don’t’ compare me to the moon by daylight,’ Kalyani said. ‘Wait till it’s out at night – then say which is lovelier.’
‘I wouldn’t see the moon if you are there,’ Narayan said, taking her hands in his own and discreetly kissing her fingers. After a while, he touched the coarse material of her sari. ‘You don’t need to wear white all the time.’
Kalyani looked startled. ‘I have only these white saris,’ she said. She ran her hand over the sari she had folded and placed by her side; it was still damp.
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