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 learned 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.
She saw Shalini filling up the form for the new English medium school. They did it together. They were confused over spellings and few boxes were left blank. Especially the box meant for ‘religion’. Zainab would grin. This was perhaps the reason why Shalini was not making it to the schools in the city. Her gods perhaps were not pleased with empty boxes against the space that was rightfully theirs.
Zainab made a suggestion. She didn’t like the idea of displeasing Shalini’s gods. This time around when Shalini came to the box of religion, they both got down to invent a new word for religion. They are still at it. The last date for submitting the form was still a few months away.
Shalini was a Hindu declared grandma. The box should say that. There was no big deal in rebellion on paper. Zainab didn’t speak. Shalini was told that Zainab was a Muslim and reminded every day. She smiled and went on with what she did best, ignore. When they spoke about this, the crown of the neem trees nodded and then fell silent.
There was a tenderness in their friendship they felt. Not all feelings have a name, not all names have a meaning. So the two girls had not relented to yet another box. But their bond made Shikhar jealous. Shikhar was Shalini’s older brother. He hovered around Zainab when she learned to walk. He had taught her cycling. Had attempted to teach her swimming in summer breaks but the river had run dry. She had sometimes seen him when their fathers met over tea. He seemed to want to teach her a lot. She was his most unwilling student. He didn’t seem to care about what she cared for and his lessons continued. She failed miserably until she met Shalini. Shalini all this while was mostly at home and her school. She was very awkward about her lanky figure. She also stammered. Shalini had chosen to stay in her own world until she met Zainab.
Zainab till then had only been subjected to Shikhar’s gaze, who followed her like a shadow, everywhere.
When Zainab was four and Shikhar was fourteen, he had slapped her for not eating from his plate. No one noticed as she was eating in her grandma’s room during her siesta. When grandma heard this, she told Zainab to slap him right back. And Zainab did. But then he pinched her when he found her alone. He later said sorry when he found her playing hopscotch. Zainab loved playing hopscotch and she played with Shalini. But one summer when Shalini was down with chicken pox, he would come with his friends and say this was a girlie game and switch to playing the blindfold game. Zainab found strange hands on her body and she let them go off as tickling. But she didn’t giggle. With her blindfold on, she didn’t know who touched her. And when she would pitch to take the blindfold off, they would call her “cheater, cheater”.
She couldn’t describe the touch to her grandma, or to her new ma or to her nanny on the phone. She was afraid of her father. Afraid of his temper. Afraid of being called evil, the baby who killed her own mother when she was born.
But she felt what she felt and how she felt about the blindfold game. She meekly spoke to grandma one Sunday. Grandma spoke to Zainab’s father, he laughed and told his mother, how do I deal with the two women in my life, one is senile and other a mal-adjusted baby. So nice of the boy to come and play and not hang out with the hoodlums.
This is when Shalini came along and never left. Zainab was so thankful for her presence. Whether it was her prayers to Allah or the angels watching over her, that winter had gifted her with a warm Shalini.
Zainab had grown so fearful of Shikhar that she had started stammering which no one noticed. She had gone totally silent. She didn’t have the heart to tell Shalini. But then they shared their first secret. They stammered together and then they found out their second secret. They sang together and then they didn’t have to stammer. They played hopscotch together. They trained a parrot to speak together and they found their dolls together. They beat the boys in their stories and their school essays. Laughed about it. They even scored together. They watched cricket together.
But then one day when Shalini brought the news of her possibility of leaving Gorakhpur, little Zainab clutched onto her and poured her heart out amidst sobs. She wasn’t sure she was making sense but in broken phrases, she spoke about her brother. Shalini held her close. Zainab felt safe and happy. She wouldn’t let go of Shalini. They bathed, ate and slept together on the same bed with grandma.
From that day this became a ritual.
There was a lot of growing up still left and a lot of finding out.
At times Shikhar dropped by after school. He was mostly kept at bay by Shalini though she was the kid sister for Shikhar. But the wiry Shalini found a rare strength when she was in Zainab’s home. Only she didn’t know how she would protect her friend once she was gone.
First, they got their homework done after coming back from school. That really saved grandma all the trouble of nagging Zainab to complete her assignments. They spoke of their day through their dolls. It was the happiest part of their day. They lived in an alternate world. This world a beautiful place. They played on the terrace where they made tents out of grandma’s starched sarees and duppattas.
One afternoon after their usual sharing of one ice-cream, that orange one, they stuck their coloured tongues out and took a selfie. And then they did it again. This time Shalini held Zainab really close. Zainab smiled. Shalini took yet another and another with a pout when Zainab stopped smiling and she kissed Shalini. Shalini asked her to move away. Zainab moved a little and smiled. Shalini smiled a little. Zainab went inside the tent and pretended to be asleep. Shalini went into the next tent and she started seeing a video. She shut it as soon as she felt Zainab stirred.
That night, Zainab asked a groggy grandma “Why do people kiss?”
Grandma said that the only way to find out is to kiss.
Zainab blushed at the idea. “Is there any age to kiss?”
Grandma fell silent. When Zainab turned to look, she heard a gentle snore. Grandma loved her sleep. Maybe she still had not run out of dreams.
Zainab remembered the way Shalini had looked at her that afternoon. Zainab stayed awake all night. She brought her doll Jia and talked to her. The next afternoon, the girls planned that maybe Jia and Jay would want to marry.
The fact that the dolls barely knew each other was a concern for the girls. They wanted Jia and Jay to have a love-marriage. In arranged marriages, girls cried too much when they left for their husband’s house, observed Shalini. When they Googled the difference between the two, Shalini came up with the clincher.
“In love-marriage, you marry your own girlfriend and in an arranged marriage you marry someone else’s”.
Zainab wasn’t sure she understood it totally but laughed as she found Shalini smiling. Shalini would break into chuckles as they read along the results about marriages.
“But does Google know everything about dolls?” Zainab asked.
Shalini succumbed to Zainab’s wisdom.
“Google knows about dolls, I don’t get what it says about dolls getting married”
“Maybe Google doesn’t know much about us”
“It doesn’t ”
“Do you think if you were in English school, you’d know better?”
“I could tell you only if I went to one”
The girls detached from their stream of ignorance. They were curious, curious to find out more about what they oughtn’t to be curious about, they were told. This fanned the quest even further. The brainstorming disturbed their school and homework.
Grandma nagged them about mid-term exams as they struggled with their priorities. They tried to convince her this was about much more important concerns. Grandma pooh-poohed at the idea of a wedding anyway. The girls in their head blamed it on her senility.
To get back at her nagging by hiding her paan-daan and then made secret notes of their brainstorming. Shalini had ten points assigned like Zainab. They would for now keep them in the paan-daan and share later. When and if their ten points matched about what marriages were all about, the dolls would get married. The notes remained folded and stayed in the box. The wedding was planned. This day was something Zainab and Shalini looked forward to. Not so much Shalini who had some compelling findings about weddings and related paraphernalia but she was happy to see Zainab glow. Grandma was an accomplice in this. She was happy to see a friendship grow stronger.
By the time, Zainab had convinced Birju Kaka to play her own playlist of wedding songs, the ‘groom’ arrived. The songs now sounded happier, the soundtrack was cleaner, grandma was beaming her gummy smile, Zainab’s father had sent across lunch, a moderate spread from the local thela that sold momos and Chinese dishes. Shalini’s father had made arrangements for the groom to take Jia home with pomp and glory. The girls for once felt proud of their fathers. The girls told the elders and friends that the new couple was to go to Pokhara for a holiday together, where they would be allowed to hold hands in public.
Shikhar was listening to every word spoken while he looked into the logistics of the catering and other such mundane jobs. His friends were eating as if they hadn’t eaten in a year. They watched as the girls carried out the nuptials. They listened to the notes from the paan-daan as they were read. Grandma who had not come with a gift said that the paan-daan was her gift and could well be the couple’s marital bed. There was a gurgle of chuckles and grandma flashed her gummy smile. Shalini and Zainab felt important and loved.
They liked the secret chambers that were there in the bronze box, that they called the paan-daan. The edges of it looked glamorous with a new polish. It seemed like it knew many stories and yet kept quiet over the years. Each chamber held a place for a condiment, a spice, a cameo and each one had a discrete role to play. The roles could get blurred when the contents of the boxes spilled over, from one chamber to another, much like life. A little messy at times.
The twenty-three guests who were there looked happy and relieved once the wedding was over. It was a thing about weddings. A sort of tedium of celebrations. People want a break from that. A robust thunder reminded them about returning home. The clouds had been obedient so far but after the first round of dessert, the monsoons knocked at the door. It poured like never before. The guests left in one big cluster. The terrace looked confused now. Part of the wedding décor still held onto the gray walls of concrete as the rains cheekily danced on the symbols of a wedding, which were now perhaps only to be seen in selfies and mandatory group photos. The rains drove away the guests, the food, the volunteers and some gossip.
What the rains, however, couldn’t drive away were Zainab and Shalini from the terrace. The girls put away the dolls to safety and then stayed backed on the terrace. It was time to let down their hair. It was time to hitch up the shalwar. It was time to throw away the dupattas. It was time to get rid of the false gold, the make-up, the mojris, the mogra. It was time to prance in the puddles. It was time to laugh out loud, and they did. They were girls. They had been only told ‘No’ for everything.
They danced to the inaudible music that they had made. They wrote a new song from the readings which the maulvi gave them on paper and the pandit shared on a scroll. The ink of those notes swirled in the water. Their eyes held onto the image as if there was a whirlpool of thoughts, gone in a few moments. They felt free.
The rain got stronger. Shalini sat by the staircase, too wet for words. She then ran into the storeroom nearby. She saw grains and cereals in sacks. She sat there, shivering. Zainab kept spinning. Moments later, she found herself alone. She went in looking for Shalini. In her haste, she missed the storeroom. She tore down the staircase and found only Shikhar and the boys with Birju kaka in the compound. The old blind man was being calmed down by Shikhar. The boys paid him and whispered something in his ears. There was an obvious negotiation underway but Zainab was not keen to pry. The old man looked flustered and confused but his fears of non-payment thawed. He was going deaf anyway and thus he perhaps needed to be whispered to is what Zainab thought. She didn’t like hushed tones. She didn’t find Shalini anywhere and Shikhar didn’t help. He pretended to ignore Zainab but his eyes searched her doubts, her mind, the possibilities, like the slight wet contour of a nascent breast.
He volunteered, “Shalu is so sick of the real world, she may want to die. Go check, she must have jumped off the terrace”
Zainab’s world wobbled. Terrified, she ran back up three flights of proud stairs. Did a quick reconnaissance of the terrace but found no such trace of Shalini. Zainab got onto the parapet in the July rain that came pelting down. She walked along the parapet. Craned her neck. Looked downwards with prayers on her lips to see if actually, Shalini had jumped.
She finally found Shalini in the storeroom. Tucked in a gunny bag of wheat grains. Zainab ran in and held her. Shalini was shivering but here the grains kept her warm. Zainab could feel her friend tremble. She held on tighter, longer. She kissed Shalini on the left cheek, moments later on the nose, on the right cheek and almost all that she found on her face. Shalini’s body was now taut. She wasn’t sure of what was possible next. Zainab kissed her again. This time a little calmer and a little longer. And then a trembling pair of young lips with the telltale taste of kulfi on her mouth kissed Shalini a little possessively. Shalini kissed her back, held the little face of Zainab and stared at her. And the moment held time stopped till a rough male hand yanked away the little Zainab. Before Shalini realized what had happened she was bolted from outside, in the storeroom.
There was no window. She heard a squeal.
Zainab’s voice seeking freedom from the clutches of the blindfold game. She hated the black band over her eyes. Her male captor relented. He put the band on her wrist and wrung them hard and tied them. He whispered that all bands would come off. She would be free and open to explore an alternate world. He called this their secret. He said he knew that what she did with Shalini and that secret had to remain as this was not the world they belong to. Zainab hated hushed tones. This was the wedding evening he said. His friends held onto her ponytails as he pulled her close. He said this is like cycling. Remember to pedal else you will fall and hurt. Her next appeal was stopped as he thrust into her. The rain pelted on. The friends came on after her, one at a time, for more practice, for a bigger secret.
The captors pumped their joy like the thumping audio of the dance songs which they had bribed their old Birju kaka to play. People around couldn’t hear the screams. Shalini almost broke down the door, well almost. Shalini could hear the hushed coaxing turn into appeal, rabid violence turn to screams lost in rhythmic drumbeats, like the sharp sticks beating the taut cow-skin. The drums on the speakers announced war, a frenzy they liked to call music and the young tears of hymen cried red. The rain washed away all traces of the secret. But the parrot blinked. The cracks in the inner walls blossomed. The supine wires swayed precariously along the walls whispered along its fissures. Shikhar and his friends didn’t notice. The girls didn’t notice. The rain didn’t notice. Grandma snored on.
Father was at work. Rains were at work. The music played on. No one could peer onto the terrace of the tallest mansion in Urdu Bazaar.
And as the boys came pelting down the winding staircase they slammed shut the door of the corridor. One cable snapped. The music crackled. The neem crowns swayed in fury. The wires entangled in their crowns. Snapped. The music stopped. The parrot ruffled its feathers. The cables gave away. The terracotta crumbled and bled red. Broke the shoulder of a wall. Then the other shoulder. The bricks came pelting on Shikhar. He couldn’t run faster than this friends. The rain and the bricks pelted hard on the boys. They only lived till that July. The parrot swore.
The walls had listened for too long. Their ears had known many secrets.
The rain grew milder. The breeze now gentler. The neem crowns were now quiet. They were now at peace.