Many-Splendoured Love/Assistance

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As soon as the marriage was finalized, Neelima changed. Her mind got filled with all sorts of snobbish ideas. As it is, she had always thought of herself as rich. All the relatives and friends knew this, so she did not have to boast about it to them. But whenever she was meeting someone for the first time, she would always create a chance to say, “In our family we are just four of us, but we have seven people working for us.”

So for her, having servants or going around in a chauffeur-driven car was not anything new. And still, the awareness that her in-laws were very well-to-do had added a new layer on her mind. Overnight, the idea about her father-in-law’s fortune had made her feel superior. Even her close friends felt that suddenly Neelu was talking, and even walking, differently. One or two of them said behind her back, “Ohho, it has been just one day, and she has started thinking so highly about herself.”

Neelima knew from the start that there would be many who would say much more than just something like this. Relatives were sure to get jealous, and friends would also feel that “Neelima really got lucky.” So, in her mind Neelima was laughing at all the other girls who were still not engaged to be married. Outwardly, she behaved mature, and a little distant as becoming of her in-laws’ status.

Father’s money had provided for her fondness for make-up and dressing up well. New clothes all the time, fancy hair-pins, long earrings - she always looked good, even though she was not very beautiful. She would get noticed first, among a group of college-girls, especially because she was somewhat taller than others, and had a full figure. Her hair reached her waist. She would keep it loose at times, or tie it in various ways at others. But always, one strand would stay free on her forehead.

College-boys would stand under some tree, and stare at the girls. None of them dared to talk them. Approaching any of them for a chat was almost forbidden by the society. Neelima hardly ever talked to a boy. Some times there would be such an opportunity with a close friend’s brother or cousin. Specially at a girl-friend’s birthday party. That was the time when the girls would have fun - teasing the boys present. “What simpletons they are”, all the girls would agree.

Neelima was her father’s favourite. She was like the only child. Certainly the only girl. Her brother was still little - a school-boy. At home, and all his friends, called him by his ‘pet’ name “Bhailu”. When the sister and the brother started fighting, in anger they would use other names to call each other. She became “bitter Neelu”, and he became “a fat boy”.

Bhailu was keen on two things - cricket and computer. He did not care about who did what in the house, so Neelima was the one that dominated in the family. She had no work to do. At the most some studying. Apart from that, just getting dressed up, going out, taking walks, playing around, seeing movies. Then, of course, there was no need to go out for movies. By turn, at other friends’ place or at her own, while having tea and snacks, they would see Hindi films on video. Not everyday as such, but almost every day. Some days even two, back to back. This was the most favourite programme for all the girls. Bhailu would think, “Totally stupid are these girls”, or “ They are stuck to the TV screen or what?” Neelima would react to such comments, saying “And aren’t you stuck to the computer screen?”

When video was not on, music would be blaring. Always the same Bollywood music. When any specially liked song came up, the volume would rise dramatically. Bhailu would come in running, and reduce it quickly. At such moments, those names would be flung around at each-other by the sister and the brother. In a few moments that storm would pass. Then, from one room the slow hum of a computer could be heard, and from another, hot favourite songs would continue to play.

Just because she was selected by a rich family, Neelima started thinking of herself even more beautiful. “I must look very beautiful, or Chetan’s Mom and Pappa would never have selected me.” She was not even twenty years old yet, and in her life so far she had never had to struggle for anything, nor had she known any insults from anyone. Limited was her world, and childlike was her thinking. Even as she was going to get married, her own self-respect and self-love were increasing from realizing that someone had chosen her. It was as if Neelima did not even have an idea that she too had a right to select or reject someone.

Who was Chetan?, how was he?, what were his interests?, likings? - she had not asked Chetan or any of the elders about such things. This was certainly her naivete, but mostly this was due to a lack of any intellectual needs. Besides, both of them had hardly met. The first time he had come with his parents, and there was no conversation between them. The next day Neelima’s father invited all of them for lunch. During the meal there was gentle coaxing to eat more. Pressing one more sweet, Neelima’s Mom had said, “Neelima has made this, so you must eat more of this.” Chetan had taken second piece, and looking at Neelima he had said, “It is very tasty.” Neelima had given a bashful smile in return.

That very evening there was mutual agreement. The next morning, Neelima’s future mother-in-law came and put gold bangles on Neelima’s wrists. In late afternoon Chetan had come with two distant cousins of his. Neelima had called two of her close friends to be present. All of them had sat together and had watched a Hindi film. Neelima’s mother had welcomed Chetankumar with tea and several snacks. Her father had forced Bhailu to join them, and talk to them, give company to his brother-in-law to be. The brother-in-law himself was not making any conversation, and Bhailu was not interested in the film, so he had gone back to his own room. Even with Neelima, Chetan had not talked much, but still, joking about the hero and the heroine etc, three hours passed easily.

In respones to the official gold bangles, Neelima’s father and uncle had taken a coconut and a hundred and one Rupees as an auspicious offering to the in-laws. Before this, the aunty had said to Nellima’s Mom, “Elder sister, perhaps it is better not to be in such a hurry. What if we look into the family, and the groom-to-be some more? My husband has heard a rumour that Chetan is somewhat slow.” Neelima’s mother did not say anything. Thinking that may be she did not get it, aunty cleared it, “ It is being said that he is slightly retarded.” Even after hearing this, without giving a response, Mom had looked at her darling daughter with much affection. Both their eyes carried the same thought -”Jealousy. Aunty’s daughter is also marriageable. She will be B.A. next year. Another such rich family and such a nice groom were not easy to come by. Certainly envy. What else?”

Neelima got up with much display of show, and started going out of the room. Her grandmother stopped her. Taking her hand, and looking at Mom, she said, “My child, going abroad may be all right, but it really is better if we find out somewhat more about the family, about their temperaments.”

Mom could not be short with the grandmother, but now she did say, “ The in-laws Kanchanben and Pratapbhai are very nice, Granny. They are from the same social caste-group, and there are just two sons. Neelima will never have to bother with a sister-in-law. Both of them - the in-laws, I mean - are God-fearing people. Daily they spend many hours in ‘pooja’and prayers. On the other hand, how many businesses they have. So many shops. Our child will certainly be happy.”

Yes, all the way to South Africa. In her mind, Neelima had imagined large shops, so many attractive things, shopping, cinema, restaurants. She will go around in cars, go shopping, wear nice clothes and jewelry; will live in luxury in the rich family - this was the picture that Neelima as well as her Mom and Pappa had. Family was good, from the same social group, so the parents were satisfied about the daughter’s happiness.

Neelima herself was excited that she was getting married. Surely, the time had come to fulfill the dreams that were created from seeing all those romantic films. She felt that she was in the centre of a huge happening, as if she was the heroine. Such was the childish romance she felt. She never had thoughts like, who was she marrying, that married life will be more real after the colour of Henna had faded; and that in a far-away, strange place she would be without parents, friends etc. In her mind, no fear or doubt entered at all.

Most people had felt, “Oh, how lucky Neelima is. In just less than three months, everything about her going to South Africa got arranged also.” She did not cry even when she was leaving home. “It is not so far. Going and coming would hardly take any time.” Her parents also had the same idea. Only Bhailu had become quiet. All of a sudden he had grown up, it seemed. In his mind he kept repeating that, “Tthe house would become rather empty without my sister.” Neelima told him, “Bhailu, plan to come there for the special Brother-Sister Day. Make sure to get the passport beforehand.” He could not say anything. Just shook his head in a ‘yes’, and slipped away.

Everyone from the family had gone upto Mumbai to see Neelima off. From there to Johannesberg. The in-laws had arranged for a companion care-taker. One of their acqaintances was returning to South Africa by that same flight. During the flight he went by Neelima a few times, and made sure she was all right. Neelima really was flying high in the air. Even when she fell asleep in the plane, a smile stayed on her face.

As she disembarked at Johannesberg Airport, her heart was bursting with so many hopes and expectations. She mused, she would bend down to touch the feet of the parents-in-law. Kanchanben would raise her up and hug her right away. “She is the one who is my Mom now.”

Neelima was clad in a heavy, showy saree befitting a bride. In the orange silk sari there were golden motifs and border all around. She had gold earrings and in her neck she wore the marriage-necklace. On her wrists were the gold bangles that Kanchanben had slipped on her the first day. She carried some more jewelry, given by her parents, in her handbag. But the in-laws would give her the trousseau now. That was what was agreed upon at the time of the wedding.

Neelima had thought that there would a welcome-ceremony right at the airport, and that many would be there to take the new daughter-in-law home. But at first nobody was to be seen. Since the process about the wedding started, for the first time, she got a little fazed. But that family-acquaintance was still there with her. They waited a little while, and then she saw Chetan hurrying up. There were two men and one young woman with him. The in-laws or anyone else did not seem to have come. Even without knowing the reason, she felt somewhat disappointed.

Before Chetan said anything, one of the young men started saying, “We left a business meeting half way, and came here running, to pick you up.” As if it was Neelima’s fault that they had to rush to the airport. It had not occurred to anyone to say ‘sorry’ to her for being late yet. Chetan did not introduce Neelima to anyone either. Addressing the young woman he said, “ Both of you wait here with the luggage. We will bring the car here. Come, Deven.”

When she heard that name, Neelima realized that he was the younger brother. He was not able to come to India for the wedding. “Someone is needed there to keep an eye on the business”, Pratapbhai had said.

“And today when he is meeting me for the first time, there is still nothing but business on his mind”, Neelima thought.

“My name is Jagruti”, the young woman started conversation. Her husband Prafull was a distant cousin of Chetan. Both of them also lived in the same house, she said. Hesitatingly, Neelima asked the reason why the in-laws did not come. “The two of them would not go out even for a day,” Jagruti said. “They have to do the daily rituals for the Gods, right?”

What kind of religious rituals were those?, Neelima did not understand. And to come to the airport they did not have to spend the whole day any way. Before she and Jagruti could talk more, both the brothers came around with thier cars.

Deven put the family-acquaintance’s luggage in his own car. That man said, “Bye, sister”, to Neelima. Without looking at her Deven said, “When I get home, be prepared to give me service, Bhabhi.” As the elder brother’s wife Neelima would be required to serve Deven, but Neelima could not think of a response. She could not understand all that was happening here.

Her luggage was already put in Chetan’s car. Chetan would be driving, and she herself would sit in the front with him - was what she had naturally thought. But Prafull sat in the driver’s seat, and Chetan sat with him in the passenger’s seat. Neelima had to get in the back with Jagruti. Even this was happening differently from her dreams.

The tall, bright, shiny buildings of Johannesberg could be seen. Neelima thought, home would be here soon. But without going in the city, the car continued on the highway. At once Neelima became aware that she had never seen the in-laws’ address. During the time after the marriage, and after all of them went back to South Africa, communication was by phone and fax. Now she felt that it was a mistake to have thought that the in-laws must live in Johannesberg. She experienced flutters of a worried heart. Softly she asked Jagruti, “How far is home?”. In reply, Chetan said, “Four hundreds and fifty kilometers.”

“Oh, Come on. You are teasing me, right?”, Neelima blurted out. Chetan laughed loudly. In a serious way Jagruti shook her head in “no, no”, and then said, “If we go non-stop it will be early morning. Driving on mountain roads at night is very risky, so we are going to stay at Jekore Aunty’s place in Pretoria for the night.” Without saying a word, Neelima closed her eyes.

Fortunately, she liked being at Jekore Aunty’s place. She was warm and smiled a lot, and kept calling Neelima “my child”. In the morning, she insisted on making tea and fresh snacks, and only then would she allow them to leave. Neelima did not even like the taste of water. Foreign water, she thought. And like she was slapped, she remembered her home now. Her parents’ home. So far, so very far. Now it was clear to her that the hours to reach the in-laws’ house from Johannesberg Airport would be as many more as the flight from Mumbai to Johannesberg would take. Oh, how far was Mom’s home. Saying “my own Mom”, the bride’s eyes filled up with tears, and she wiped them off before anyone noticed.

Prafull and Jagruti sat in the front. Neelima handed Prafull a cassette of new Hindi film songs that she had kept in her handbag. There was no enjoyment listening to the songs, as the car made its way through the dry land of the new country. After Pretoria was left behind, there were only dry, lifeless fields. Sure, the road was well-paved, and the car was a large Mercedes, but how stark and parched was everything out here. All those shops and big shopping centres - where were they?

In about two more hours, near Petersberg, on the high-way they stopped to refuel the car. “Have a cup of tea. You will feel less lethargic”, saying, Chetan bought her tea. But it was just like warm water. There was no taste in it. “At home I will have a nice tasty cup of tea”, Neelima thought. There would still be over two more hours to reach home. “It would be almost two o’clock”, Jagryti said. She also had no interest in this empty, hilly, ochre landscape. She had a headache. Chetan sat in front in her place. Sitting in the back seat, Jagruti looked at Neelima. Without any words much meaning passed through their eyes. In the instant, wordlessly, a bridge of friendship got built between the two young women.

                                                 *                          *  

From outside, the house had seemed old and small. “This? Like this?”, Neelima had felt. Kanchanben had opened the door and in Neelima’s hands she put pieces of fruits she had cut to offer to her Gods. When Neelima bent down to touch her feet, she had moved two steps back, and had quickly said, “Go, take a bath right away. There is a lot of work in the kitchen today.” Pratapbhai’s sister and brother were coming, with their families, to have dinner and to see the new daughter-in-law.

From that first day, every day Neelima would wonder, “How can this be called home?” Of course, a large new house was built in the back compound. A big sitting room in the front, and then there were a row of bedrooms. On one hand there were comforts, and on the other, there was nothing nice. Pratapbhai himself was born and raised in that very front house, so for him that was the whole world. He had set up many shops and had developed many businesses. He and his wife - Neelima’s in-laws - felt very smug about their fortune.

Looking at the flowers in the back garden Neelima would sigh lightly, and ask herself, “But how can this be called home?” Only high hills, stone-faced cliffs, dry forest land wherever one looked. Urvining could not be called a village even. It was an outpost on the Highway. Hardly any people lived there. There were no huts even nearby. This house of the in-laws - that itself was Urvining. Out front was a shop and a petrol pump, and both were theirs also. No neighbours, and no one to make friends with. Neelima felt, she had not just come abroad, but she had been banished from her own country.

From her very first morning at the in-laws’ place, the daily routine had started for Neelima. That first morning Chetan himself had shaken her out of deep sleep - at the early hour of five o’clock in the morning. Her head had hurt from this sudden waking up. It took a few moments for her to be aware of where she was. After this, she did not get even these few free seconds in the day. The edict of the household was that all women had to come out of their room after taking a bath first, and that too, wearing a sari. In her life back home Neelima rarely wore a sari. “Don’t people wear fashionable Western clothes in foreign countries? What kind of foreign is this?”, she would ask herself.

After taking a bath and getting dressed, Neelima would go into the prayer room. She would prepare incense, a ghee-filled lamp, fresh flowers etc. From the very first day Neelima had seen how the in-laws spent most of the day in the prayer room. Both of them sat to perform religious rituals, for five aad a half hours in the morning and three and a half hours in the evening. Apart from this, Kanchanben’s mind was occupied with ordinary matters, and Pratapbhai’s was busy with thoughts of business.

At about half past six in the morning, Neelima would go to the old house in front and prepare tea for Chetan. Only the small kitchen there was used the whole day. In the narrow compound between the two houses there was a Tulsi plant. Neelima formed a habit to bow to it every morning, and along with that, she would think of her Mom and the grand-mother. Chetan left at about seven, and would return at half past six or seven in the evening. Even after that, after Pratapbhai had finished his daily evening prayers, Chetan would sit and talk about business with his father till almost eleven o’clock at night.

Neelima’s whole day was spent in the kitchen. Three Indian men were working in the shop out front. She would prepare tea and snacks for them and take a tray to them at half past nine in the morning. Deven got up very late. He would get ready and come out of his room around noontime, and on the way to the shop, not giving a glance in Neelima’s direction, he would say, “Bhabhi, Toast. tea-time.”

Lastly, the mother and father-in-law would come out after finishing their hours’ long ‘pooja’, so Neelima would take spicy boiled water and glasses of milk to them, Both of them had vowed off tea. Not just that, the mother-in-law had taken such a vow for Neelima also, even before she arrived. Neelima never drank tea after coming to South Africa.

Just like this almost a year and a half passed. By now, even the thought of tea repulsed her. But on the first afternoon when she reached the in-laws’ house from Pretoria, she asked Jagruti about a cup of tea, to get refreshed after being tired from such a long journey. At that moment, she had been shocked by the answer the mother-in-law quickly gave, before Jagruti had a chance. Could one person take a vow on behalf of someone else?, Neelima had never heard such a thing. There was this tiny little habit in her life - one small need, but someone had snatched that away in the name of a marriage.

So many hurts had been hitting at her. Such small wounds that they could leave a scratch, but would not bleed yet. Rules like - could not pick up the house-phone, could not call her parents; any letter that came from them or any she wrote, would have to be read by the mother-in-law first, could not do any make-up; could not leave her hair down and loose; could not talk when the father-in-law was around; could not play Hindi songs in any common areas like the kitchen or dining-room. So many tiny-tniy strikes, like with some small axe to change the shape of a sculpture.

Morning tea, afternoon lunch, afternoon tea, the main meal at night - everything had to be cooked fresh, and served piping hot, just then. Besides these, various dry snacks had to be made and kept ready as well. This Urvining post was on the highway that connected South Africa and Zimbabwe, and besides, in the small Indian community around there, Kanchanben and Pratapbhai were quite known, so there would always be visitors coming and going. Some of them would have come five times, six times, but Neelima would never get her turn to go visit them. Two months, three months would pass, and Neelima and Jagruti would not have left the family-compound even once.

Going down the hills, in two directions, there were two small towns - called Louis Trikhard and Thohoyandu. In those towns as well as two-three other nearby towns, Pratapbhai had opened shops, selling grocery, soaps, pots and pans etc. Every week, even fresh vegetables would arrive from India. In over a year, Neelima had just seen one of these shops. As if life was made up of sleepless nights, her dreams of going to Malls, and of seeing, buying things had slowly faded out.

Apart from absolutely not going out anywhere, and the constant muttering and complaining of the mother-in-law, there was no other discomfort being in the house. The whole day cooking never ended, that’s all. There was no other work to be done. To do the dishes, wash clothes and clean the house about seven or eight local tribal women came from morning to night. Not a single one of them got one free moment from work. There was no end of washing dishes. Plates and pots and pans from tea-snacks and meals went on all the time, but also there would be large silver trays, bowls, spoons, and other things that were used in the daily religious rituals. Oh, there would be between twelve and fifteen silver lamps to be cleaned every day.

From all the hushed comments and eye-exchanges by these women, Neelima had got the idea as to what they thought about all the main members of the household. With a need to earn a livelihood these women were compelled to come to that household. Still, every two - three months one or two would leave the employ, and the rest would have to find some other women to come and work there. In one year so many women came and left. Neelima could see that they had self-respect. They all had worries of going without food for the family, and still they were able to throw away such an unbearable job.

And she? Neelima herslef? She was sacrificing her own breaths in that saffocating atmosphere of mindless orthodoxy. “Don’t I have any self-respect like these poor, uneducated tribal women even?”, touching the auspicious Tulsi plant in the compound, she would ask the question to herslef.

Out of all these, two women had become very trustworthy in the house. Among the two, Sinitzi was very sharp. Listening to the mother-in-laws prayers, she had picked up the tunes. While working around the house she would go on singing. Sometimes those prayers, sometines songs from the tribal groups in that Venda area. Not one detail about Neelims’s life was hidden from her. Insulting behaviour from the mother-in-law, less than intimate relashionship with her husband, the wordless pain within her heart - all these had been noticed by Sinitzi’s observant eye from the beginning. This was why she would try to look after Neelima, and whenever she got a chance, she would try to lighten Neelima’s mood, by talking to her, making her laugh a little.

This way, in the house with Sinitzi, and in the kitchen with Jagruti, Neelima would get some time to converse. Jekore Aunty had come from Pretoria once, and had visited for three hours. For Neelima it had felt like meeting her grandmother. All other times, mother-in-law’s complaints and fault-finding went on constantly. It was peaceful only when she was sitting in the prayer room. Jagruti would say, “How many hours of prayers and pooja? Even the Gods must be getting tired.” Also, Neelima would wait for the eleveth of the moon, twice a month. On those days Kanchanben maintained total ‘maun’ - wordlessness. On those days, it was true that Neelima would have to understand her wishes and objections from her indications, but at least, it spared Neelima from her constant orders and edicts.

One day a new guest came - an elderly lady called Hansiben. She and Kanchanben had known each other for many years. She lived in Johanesberg, and had come all the way to Louis Trikhard town to look up a sick relative. She came to visit in the evening, and spent the night in the house. In the morning, she was going to take a mini-bus from Thohoyandu back to Johannesberg. Hansiben sat with Neelima and talked with her for a long time. She asked about Neelima’s family back in India, praised her cooking, and invited her, saying with a lot of emotion, “You must come and stay with me in Johannesberg.”

That night, Kanchanben told Neelima about one incidence in Hansiben’s life. “She remembered her own daughter when she saw you. She had died just two years after getting married. Hwe in-laws lived somewhat far from Johannesberg, and she fell ill so suddenly that Hansiben and her husband could not even see her before she died. Hansiben told me that you look just like her sheela.”

The next day happened to be the eleventh of the moon, so Kanchanben was wordless from early morning. It had been decided that Neelima would go to Thohoyandu with Hansiben, to give her company. Neelima was going out of the house after three months, so fshe elt excited to get ready. Mother-in-law was already sitting in the prayer room, so she put a little lipstick on her lips. It took about forty-five minutes to get to Thohoyandu. From Hansiben, for the first time Neelima got to hear about a big city in a foreign country. When she came out of the International Airport at Johannesberg, she had seen the tall, shiny buildings of the city. That day was almost a year ago.

People who live in South Africa call Johannesberg ‘Jo-berg’ in short, Neelima learnt that from Hansiben. She also told Neelima about Jo-berg’s many immensely large shopping centres. She said, “They will make you forget America even.” Then she took out a small bottle of perfume, and gave it to Neelima. “I don’t have anything else just now, but keep this. I have used it only twice.”

The mini-bus stand was right next to the big vegetable market in Thohoyandu. She bought the ticket, and before she sat in the mini-bus Hansiben hugged Neelima, and giving her address to Neelima, repeated her invitation to come and stay with her in Johannesberg. Her smile was pale as she said, “Think of it as your parents’ house”. Both their eyes were filled with tears as they waved at each other.

Neelima bought fresh vegetables and fruits as the mother-in-law had told her to. There was one family-shop in the market also. From there, she picked up all the things from the list given to her, and got the driver to arrange them in the car. Then telling the driver to wait a few minutes, she went to the chemist’s shop - just to look at things. Just a small shop, in a small town - what was there to buy any way? But then, how was she going to get even such an opportunity again?

                                               *                               *  

The auspicious day, in the Hindu Calendar, between a sister and a brother came and went. How was Bhailu to come all the way to South Africa? In fact, after reaching the in-laws’ house, Neelima had started telling herself that it was better if Bhailu did not come. On Diwali day there was a phone call from Mom and Pappa, to give her their blessings. Pappa had made a point of chatting with Chetankumar.

A year had passed after their marriage. Neelima herself had to make the sweet item, traditionally made for the special day. When Neelima bent down and touched the mother-in-law’s feet, she had given her just a printed sari, and had asked her accusingly, “Now when are you going to give me good news?” From last two months or so, directly or indirectly, such questions had started. In the same way, she would take her irritation out on Neelima, implying some feminine lack in her. Neelima would wonder, “ For that, it is Chetan’s responsibility also, does that thought never occurs to her?”

Chetan decided to go out somewhere on the occasion of the marriage anniversary. and asked Prafull and Jagruti to join also. It was just a short trip in the nearby jungle area. Neelima desired to go to some large city, but Chetan would not hear of it. Some new cottages had come up in a place called Sagole, and Chetan booked two cottages there for one night.

On hearing about it, Sinitzi told Neelima. “ Do not walk or even touch anywhere in that area. In those jungles, ancient spirits of the tribal ancestors reside, and it is said that even the animals there have mystical power.” Neelima got a little startled by this. She did not tell anything about this to Chetan, guessing that he was sure to laugh it out.

After reaching there and checking in, all of them did go out walking, staying on the path. By the time all of them stepped into the hot water spring, Neelima had forgotten about the belief Sinitzi had mentioned. After a while, all of them sat in the sun, on a large stoney cliff, and had a picnic with snacks brought over from home. It was evening before they reached the cottages, and little insects had come out in droves.

During the night, suddenly, Neelima suffered from chills. In the morning she felt strong vertigo, and also carried high fever. Immediately the four of them left to return home. Kanchanben was very pleased, and thought that it certainly was the sign of the good news she had been waiting for. Right away she performed a ritual to avert the ‘evil eye’ from anyone. The fever remained for two days. Those two days and nights Sinitzi did not go to her own home. She stayed by Neelima, to get her better. On the third day the fever broke. Neelima was able to have some light soup, and felt a little stronger. In the afternoon she went out on the back varrandah, and sat in the sun. There, without any prompting, Sinitzi started telling her a folk tale from that forrested Venda area.

“Countless years ago, in the middle of the thick jungle, several tribal families lived peacefully. Every so often, to give respect to their ancestors’ ancient culture, they would have celebrations. There would be singing of traditional songs, playing of the Domba drum, and young virgin girls would dance in that unbroken music. Among them, one girl was the most beautiful. Her name was Malindi. Whole Nature tried to please her. The breeze blew for her, flowers spread their fragrance for her, clouds made shade for her, the lake-water became her mirror, the sun looked for her all day, and the moon burnt to ashes feeling jealous of her.

“One day, attracted by her beauty and her enchanting dancing, the deity of the spirit of the forrest appeared. He showered praises on Malindi, and expressed his wish to make her his consort and the queen of the jungle. He gave her all sorts of tempting offers, as well as some threats, but she did not agree to his wishes. She did not want to leave her own close family and friends. The insulted deity-spirit got very angry and placed a curse on the innocent Malindi. “ I curse you to remain as a stone cliff. Only your eyes will remain alive. You will be able to see your loved ones, but you will not be able to talk, laugh or dance with them.” Right then Malindi’s body transformed into a huge stone. Large tears started dropping from her lovely eyes on the rough surface.

“ Her mother and father fell on the deity’s feet, and pleaded with him to be merciful. For seven whole days and seven nights they tried to please and appease the deity-spirit of the jungle. Finally, the deity told them a way out from his curse. “If some other deity, from outside of this forest, and one who has no knowledge of this curse, touches Malindi’s stone-body she would become a girl again”, he said.

“ A long time passed. From the water flowing constantly from Malindi’s eyes, a pretty lake was formed. No matter how hot it got in the jungle, this lake never dried up. One summer, with the lack of rains many other lakes had become dry, and at that time, the deity of Lightening, having taken the form of the Andadzi bird, came upon Malindi’s lake. Happy to see so much water finally, he dipped his face in it to quench his thirst. But the water was salty. Astonished by this, he looked up to see where the water was coming from. He saw that two lovely eyes, full of pain and misery, were looking at him. To find out if they were real or just painted on the stone, Andadzi slowly put his hand on them. That very moment Malindi’s curse ended. She was transformed into a girl. She bowed down to the deity of Lightening and thanked him. Feeling compassionate upon hearing about her ordeal, he gave her a promise, “Whenever you have a need, think of me. My wings will come to you at lightening speed, will rescue you, and will take you far far away.””

Neelima was listening to this fairytale-like story with deep interest. Sinitzi paused for a monent, and then, with a hidden suggestion she said, “Both Malindi’s name and yours are so similar, did you notice that? Malindi. Can you see what happenes if you reverse it?” With feelings of wonder and fear Neelima kept staring at her. From the pocket of her loose dress, Sinitzi took something out, and put it in Neelima’s hand. It was a small feather. Then she said, “Keep it safely in your wallet. It is a blessed offering, and it is possible that if there is a need, it may also have power to take you far far away.”

The little feather shone with some bright rainbow colours. It reminded Neelima of ‘Morpinchh’. “But a ‘morpinchh’ is a colourful peacock-feather that Lord Krishna likes to wear on his head, while this feather is likely to be ordained by some tribal man who knows some ‘black magic’, for sure,” she thought. But she held it on in her hand, because she did not want to hurt Sinitzi’s feelings. “I will throw it away when Sinitzi is not around,” was what Neelima thought.

As if Sinitzi understood the thought in Neelima’s mind, she stretched her hand to take the feather back, and said, “ Give it to me. I will go and put it in your wallet for you.” Just then Kanchanben came by to ask after Neelima’s health. Hiding the feather quickly, Sinitzi rushed back into the house.

After this Kanchanben’s harrassment towards Neelima increased greatly. There was no sign of any “good news”. Now she spoke very rudely to Neelima all the time, started finding faults with her constantly. Once when she said that she made a big mistake by getting Chetan married to her, Neelima swollowed that insult somehow; but when the mother-in-law started blaming her parents, Neelima could not bear it. She left the cooking as it was and ran to her room.

Chetan’s mother could find no shortcoming in him, and it was not possible for Neelima to tell anyone how he really was. During the short span of her marriage, Neelima was reminded of what her Aunt had said, even before the engagement; but now how could she tell the aunt or her Mom how true those words were - about Chetan being slow, not perfectly nornal? Where was any solution now? - except for regretting it in private?

Still, Jagruti helped soothe her as much as she could, and Neelima always felt that Sinitzi was taking care of her in some mysterious ways. One evening, suddenly Sinitzi had reminded Neelima of the God of Lightening, who takes the form of the Andadzi bird, and flies around to help his devotees. “Andadzi can burn anyone up with the lightening in his eyes, and there would be no sign of any fire anywhere”, Sinitzi had reinforced.

Neelima did not understand as to why Sinitzi was telling her about this, but she shook her head in utter wonder. In return Sinitzi smiled sweetly - as if she knew the deep mystery of Andadzi’s divine power.

                                   *                           *                         *

About a year and a half had passed since Neelima got married. For last one month or so, Kanchanben was after her to go see the doctor. One time, without being impolite, gathering her courage, speaking gently, Neelima had suggested that perhaps it would be better if Chetan went to the doctor first. These words instantly made Kanchanben so angry that, before she could realize, she gave a strong slap on Neelima’s back.

Neelima was about to roast a fresh chappati, and was holding the hot pan with one hand and a tong in the other. With the strong impact of Kanchanben’s hand on her back, Neelima’s hand felt the sudden jerk, and the tong fell on the ground. The pan fell on her foot. Instantly, the extremely hot and heavy iron-made pan created several boils on the foot. Getting alarmed by the sudden loud noise, two-three women, who were working nearby, rushed in. Jagruti came running, leaving whatever she was doing.

Neelima’s tears started flowing, for the first time in front of anyone. Of course, Kanchanben was not there to notice them. Jagruti supported Neelima in her arms, and indicated to the other women to go out. Then she carefully sat her down in a chair, took her burnt up foot in her own lap, and very softly, started applying home-made Ghee on the boils.

That whole night Neelima kept whimpering in pain, kept tossing and turning in bed. “It is disturbing my sleep”, Chetan said in the middle of the night, and went away to the guest-room.

Fortunately the burn was not very deep, and in two days Neelima was able to put her foot down somewhat. In the mean time, Kanchanben had booked an appointment with the doctor. The previous night she informed Jagruti that in the morning the driver would take her and Neelima to Thohoyandu. “Get the fresh fruits and vegetables from the market, and all other things in the list from our shop first. Then, by eleven, you have to reach the doctor-uncle’s office”, was her command. Neelima had no strength left for any resistance or argument, but the intense feeling of being insulted was tearing up her mind.

Sinitzi held her hand and led her to the car. She opened the door, and after Neelima sat down inside, she touched the burnt foot very softly. When she looked up at Neelima, there was a sparkle in Sinitzi’s eyes. In a serious tone she said, “If a person really wishes, they can really fly. Andadzi is always there to grant blessings.”

Just like with a loud thunder and a flash of lightening at the same time, Neelima seemed to understand Sinitzi’s words for the first time. A slight colour appeared on her pale face. Her lips twisted in a small smile. Before Jagruti came to the car, she stretched both her arms, put them around Sinitzi’s shoulders, and touched her cheek with her own cheek.

As the car started moving away, Neelima waved to her slowly. Without saying anything or even waving back, Sinitzi kept looking towards her.

With eyes closed, Neelima rested her head on the car-seat. The car was going through the hills all around. Jagruti exhaled softly, and said, “Can’t remember how long it has been since I went to Thohoyandu last. Must have been three months at least.” Startled, Neelima’s eyes popped open. For her it was over six months. She had gone with Hansiben, to see her off to the bus to Johannesberg. That day was the eleventh of the moon, and Kanchanben was abstaining from speaking, and that was why Neelima had got the chance to go out that day. Thinking of Hansiben, as if another stroke of lightening burst out. Neelima felt as if she had got the answer to an unspoken question. She suddenly felt relieved, and as light as was possible to fly. That thought made her break out in a laugh. She must have laughed like that after many days. Jagruti asked, “What is making you so happy?”

“Oh, just because I am going to town after so long”, Neelima said. Opening the purse, from the wallet inside, she took out the small feather, felt it with her fingers, and touched it to her cheek. Next moment she put it back in, and said, “We will send the driver to get the vegetables. You go to our shop and start getting the things from the list. I have to go to the chemist’s shop for a minute. Then I will see you at the shop.”

Even after six months she remembered everything. Especially where the bus-stand was. Getting out of the car, she walked with Jagruti towards the shops in a natural manner. The driver locked up the car and went towards the vegetable-market. At the chemist Neelima went inside. Jagruti went to their shop.

Neelima did not stray to see anything. Went directly to the counter and asked for a blank sheet of paper. Took out a ballpen from her purse, quickly wrote three or four sentneces, and then even faster, she went where the car was parked. She folded the paper, and stuck it under the wiper of the car. For a moment she looked all around, and then started going in the direction of the bus-stand.

In a short while, she was sitting in a bus to Johannesberg, and that bus was going towards the high-way. May be not for the whole life, but some solution would be found, of that she was certain. For now, it was enough that she was free, and perched on some colourful wings, she was going far far away.