A Wedding Song by Barnali Ray Shukla

Zainab called out louder the second time. But her young voice couldn’t drown the loudspeaker. Only the occasional thunder tamed that blaring music. Zainab could live with the rusty loudspeaker but she was not happy with the choice of songs that her grandmother had chosen. These certainly didn’t sound like wedding songs.

She trudged towards the main gate of the mansion they called home, made up of gullible terracotta and obstinate granite. Enthusiastic repairs had stolen some of its beauty but their home was a landmark for many. Some cracks remained like chinks in a personal myth. Of all the repairs that had been done, Zainab’s father had ensured that the boundary wall looked unassuming from the outside. He had reinforced it from the inner courtyard. The two neem trees bore witness to this line of thought.

“It is almost like bringing up a daughter”, he told the mason. “If she is too pretty and out in the world all the time, the father isn’t the happiest parent in the neighbourhood”. The mason had worked quietly. Beauty had been bargained with fear.

The neem trees nodded occasionally through the seasons and when the monsoon unleashed they even danced. As of today, their crowns danced to the songs which grandma had selected. They weren’t making choices. They were trees.

The posters on the outer walls of the mansion jostled for space among cow dung cakes, few of Bollywood and Bhojpuri taste of what went off as cinema and the pre-Botox faces of politicians, smiling at their prospective voters. Even with a wedding in the house, the outer wall remained sad. It had no trace of jasmine streamers.

An anxious Zainab skipped out of the main gate. The large wooden gate opened only for vehicles. The small creaky door was meant for people.

The shop just next to the main entrance of their house was where the speakers had been sourced from and now played music from a tired cassette-player. Birju kaka called himself a decorator and ran the show but didn’t quite agree that he was now nearly deaf. He had been running this store since the Quit-India movement. He spoke of times when he almost met the Mahatma but didn’t have the time. Birju kaka was always loyal to grandma’s playlist. He had more than one reason for it. But today was going to be different.

Zainab was in a hurry. She had noticed from the terrace that the baraat had flagged-off. Their house was the tallest one in Urdu Bazar, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, India, Pin code 273005. When Zainab stood on the western parapet, she could see her friend’s home, a little more than a kilometer away. A line of three rickshaws was seen with her best friend Shalini and her family.

Zainab and Shalini were thick as thieves. They shared many secrets. One secret being this, Shalini would always have a kite stuck to the rear of the rickshaw when she started for Zainab’s home. The fuchsia-orange kite looked like a tiny flame on an overcast day that July. A thundershower seemed just around the corner. Zainab hoped that the dark grey clouds would remain parked over Pokhara. It was a guess but since her top marks in geography, she had grown confident. From their terrace the horizon that they all agreed upon, was Pokhara. As the crow flies, Pokhara in Nepal to Gorakhpur in India, took a little while though she couldn’t say much about a reckless July, pregnant with monsoons. Monsoons could throw tantrums. This time around they were on time. They were getting predictable. But no one could tell what the next squall could do. Setting up each detail in the outdoors for a wedding and leaving the rest to the rain gods is what her best friend Shalini had offered. This was the best they could do for a July wedding on a terrace.

But this was no ordinary wedding. Jia was getting married.

Zainab wanted everything to be perfect.

Jia was her doll and the bride. Jia was getting married to Jay. Jay, the groom, was Shalini’s doll.

Zainab was 8. Shalini was 14.

Their dolls were timeless, ageless. That’s what the young parents wanted to believe.

For two friends in Gorakhpur, their dolls were the centre of their universe. Their dolls were their confidantes. They kept their secrets, safe.

The two friends had been preparing for this wedding since Shalini had brought news of her heading off to a boarding school. Her parents were keen that she leave Gorakhpur and attend an English medium school in Lucknow. Shalini had failed to make it in the admission tests. Each time she had failed, the two friends had spent quality time together and rejoiced. Not because she had failed but as it assured them more time together.

The Jia and Jay wedding was one of the bonds that would last a lifetime they pledged. This seemed agreeable to the families and they were ready to make this bond stronger. Shalini’s father worked in the factory owned by Zainab’s family. And he had been promoted recently. The girls had no inkling what stage of life the parents were in but the two of them knew that they needed more and more excuses to be together.

In this mansion that Zainab’s great-grandfather had built with care, the rooms were occupied but their home felt empty. Zainab’s mother had died at childbirth. Zainab had never known a mother. Her father had three sisters. All married and never came home.

Not even to see grandma. One she was told was in Pune, one in Peshawar and one was in an asylum.

Grandma was the lone woman figure in the family. There was her nanny but she had nearly gone blind. She couldn’t tell if she was serving pulses or curry, neither could she tell kho-kho from hopscotch. But her nanny was dear to Zainab. All that was dear to her was mostly taken away but she had learnt to not make this a jinx. She had found ways to find new beginnings. Her nanny’s son took her away to their village a year back when he got married. Said that he wanted the mother to stop working. While her nanny would have preferred to live with Zainab and grandma, the son wasn’t expected to listen. Maybe there was additional work at home as the new bride was expecting twins. When her nanny said bye to Zainab, she held onto her real tight and wouldn’t let her go. But goodbyes are never well-timed. They always come by when you least expect them. This was perhaps the most difficult goodbye for the 8-year old Zainab.

The easy goodbyes came with her step-mother. Her father had found himself a new wife when Zainab was four. Her step-mother barely stayed in their family home. She was pregnant all the time her grandma said but never brought those babies here in Gorakhpur. They remained with her mother in her hometown. What perhaps they were waiting for was a boy, a male heir to her father’s business of weaving carpets. This was her grandma’s announcement last summer. Zainab ignored such comments. She had tried to like her new mother but that had not happened. When you like someone then goodbyes feel sadder. She felt nothing when the new mum left. New mum felt something when she left. Grandma called it guilt. Zainab called it nothing. She was pre-occupied with the next sad goodbye coming up.

To read the complete story please purchase the Sanctuary here.

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