You had a bald patch on your head and that was the very first thing I noticed, not the way your fingers shivered, not the way your eyes never settled down on a single object, not the way in which you had almost refused to tie the mangalsutra (necklace worn by married women) around my neck; just the bald patch. I wanted to touch it, I wanted to feel its roughness. But, you were dragged away.
You said nothing, as your brother kept holding onto your hand, as if you were a little boy. I could only watch your stiff back, as it became smaller and smaller. I tried to smile and make sense of what had happened. I wondered if I should worry about it, even as I looked around for my own brothers who did not let go off a single opportunity to vouch by how lucky I was to have found a B.A. pass groom, but they seemed to have disappeared too. I gave up after a while and looked at the saree I was wearing. My mother told me it was new, but I did not believe her. A new saree would simply not stick to my body so well. But I did not mind. It was a pretty saree, red in color and with a thick dark brown border. Had you noticed it, I wondered, and did you like it?
When I saw you next, you were in the kitchen in your house, eating a huge mound of rice, clumsily mixing it with prawn curry, and leaving a periphery of grains around your patravali (plate made of leaves). Your mother asked me to wait till you would be done. It took me a while to realize that your leftovers were going to be my meal. And yet, the delectable aroma of the prawn curry had instantly roused my hunger. That was the best meal I had had in years. It had something to do with you, I was certain. It was almost like the patravali had acquired a taste from your fingers. Suddenly, I was longing to touch those fingers.
I slept alongside your mother that night, staying awake through her monstrous snores, watching the little hole in one of the tiles that made up the ceiling of your small house. Were you sleeping with your brothers and did you snore too, I wondered. No, you possibly didn't snore. You were B.A. pass.
You barely spoke to anyone in your house, but I did hear you sing in a language I did not understand. I tried hard to attract your attention, but you always seemed distant, the remnant hair on your head uncombed, the vest you were wearing with more holes than I could count, your lungi (long garment worn around the waist by men) uncomfortably soiled. It took me a while to realize that no one ever washed your clothes, your mother washed her own and so did your brothers. That was the very first time I spoke to you, offering to wash your clothes alongside mine. You had turned to look at me, and then looked away, as if I were a complete stranger. I tried asking you for a second time; you looked at me again and I thought I saw a slight hint of recognition in those eyes. You raised your hand and I thought you would use it to pull the vest off your torso. But you did nothing like that. You used it to hit me, four consecutive times.
"Go away, rande (whore)", you had said.
Words I would never be able to forget, nor would I be able to forget the gleam in your eyes. For the very first time, they seemed to come alive, much like the rest of you. I was terrified and yet defiant, ready to retaliate, but the very next instant you were sobbing, your face cupped in your palms. Your brother dragged you away yet again, screaming and slapping you on the back, asking you to keep away from me. You continued to sob. You said nothing.
You were locked in a room for the next few days. Your mother only told me you were unwell and would be better off being on your own. I tried telling her how your clothes were soiled and how your vest needed replacement, and how you had sobbed right after hitting me. She said nothing and in a way I had been relieved. I could probably believe her. Maybe, the locked room would do some good to you.
By the time you were unlocked from the room, you had acquired a deathly aura. You spent most part of the day lying down, and singing, the sadness in your voice unbearable. I had missed eating food from your patravali; the prawn curry hardly as tasty as it had once been. But now that you were back, it was almost like your fingers had lost the magic inside them.
That night, I quietly sneaked out of the room I slept in with your mother and walked up to where you were. The room smelt so much of you, as I sat down next to your head, trying to make sense of your silhouette, and identifying various parts of your body. Your bald patch stood out as my eyes finally got accustomed to the moonlight. I could no longer stop myself, as very soon my fingers were on the patch. I caressed it gently when you stirred in your sleep, clearly displeased by my intrusion. I withdrew my hand, only to be blocked by your raised arm that was soon holding onto my wrist. Your fingers were so warm. I almost gasped as I struggled to pull myself away from there.
"Shanti," you said as you finally let go off my arm, writhing.
I stumbled as I made my way past the darkness and back into the room where I was expected to be, all along thinking of you and your touch and the name that you had uttered, Shanti.
My brothers got to know eventually. They were angry, agitated and unwilling to listen to everything your mother or brothers had to say. You watched them all as if it was all part of a stupor, and I watched you, thinking of Shanti and trying to imagine her in your life. My brothers raved about how they were fooled into letting a mad man marry their sister. Had it not been for a well-meaning relative who had known of your 'history', they said, they would have never known.
"A mad man," they said, almost rushing in your direction, as if you were the sole reason for your madness.
"We are not keeping her here. Let her die a lone woman's death and let her survive working in other people's houses, even if on one meal. But not this."
My brothers had made up their minds and they watched over as they forced me to pack my clothes. Justice had prevailed in their world. They could absolve themselves of their mistake.
"You are lucky we found out, but looks like his madness has probably rubbed off on you too," the eldest one said as he led me out of the house, shaking with fury, refusing to listen to me.
I thought I saw a hint of despair in your eyes, as you watched me leave, or maybe it was a reflection of my own despair. I was not Shanti, I never could be. The sadness was all mine.