Laxmi sits, bedecked, bejewelled and on display, opposite the stranger she is to marry. They are in the dining room, which has been cleared and cleaned after the sumptuous lunch laid out for the guests. Nevertheless, the smell of curry lingers, mixed in with the phenyl used to mop the floor – making her slightly nauseous.
The door to the room stands open, the cloth curtain hanging down from it giving the illusion of privacy. Every once in a while, one of her brothers comes to check on her, to make sure she is not getting up to any mischief before the wedding. As if! What can she possibly do? She barely knows this man. And yet, if her parents have their way, she is going to marry him, as early as next month.
The feeling of nausea intensifies, her stomach threatening to regurgitate the meal they’ve just had – although she couldn’t eat much under the collective, assessing gaze of her suitor and his family – the best dishes prepared for the visitors: vegetable bhath and chicken sukka, kori kachpu and fish fry, kori roti and mutton masala, with shyamige payasam for afters.
The glass panels covering the iron bars of the window are open wide to let in the early afternoon breeze, sounds wafting in its wake. The murmur of the two families in the adjacent room, discussing the wedding and the dowry, Mali the cat screeching as she is chased by the dog for stealing from his bowl, the neighbourhood children prattling as they walk past on their way to school after lunch – she should be there too, teaching, but her parents insisted she take the day off. Snatches of the song Somu, Sumitranna’s simple son sings as he bathes his buffalo in the stream below reach her ears, and, very faintly, Nagappa’s screams as his wife whips him with a hibiscus branch for spending the previous day’s earnings on arrack, sleeping in the gutter and staggering home for lunch.
Laxmi closes her eyes, imagining she’s in her light cotton churidar dancing among the fields, the ears of paddy kissing her feet, Ramu’s delighted laughter as he splashes her with water from the stream.
He was the new boy in her class, back when she was a student herself and in the sixth standard. He was huge. Taller than even her brothers. He had bushy eyebrows, an angry scowl, the beginnings of a wispy beard. He had massive shoulders and legs as thick as she was. The new boy is nearly a man, she’d thought, sneaking furtive glances at him from over her shoulder.
He sat hunched at the desk too small for him, not meeting anybody’s gaze. Whispers fluttered around the classroom like bugs on hot summer days looking for fresh flesh to sink their talons into, when Sister Smitha turned to write on the board.
‘He’s failed many times, that’s why he’s in our class,’ Laxmi heard. ‘He’s been expelled from all the neighbouring schools. His mother came and sobbed at Mother Brenda’s feet, and the nuns took him on as a charity case.’ ‘He has no dad. Nobody knows what happened to him.’ And the loudest whisper of all, ‘He’s an untouchable.’
At lunchtime, she’d picked up her bag and umbrella and prepared to walk home through the fields, dodging sharp elbows and bony knees as all her classmates spilled out at once, chattering mightily, the ones taking the rickshaw home rushing out first, so they could bag a seat and not have to sit on top of the other kids. Laxmi was one of the last to leave the classroom and at the door, something made her turn.
Renita D’Silva loves stories, both reading and creating them. Her short stories have been published in ‘The View from Here’, ‘Bartleby Snopes’, ‘this zine’, ‘Platinum Page’, ‘Paragraph Planet’ among others and have been nominated for the ‘Pushcart’ prize and the ‘Best of the Net’ anthology. She is the author of five novels: ‘Monsoon Memories’, ‘The Forgotten Daughter’, ‘The Stolen Girl’, ‘A Sister’s Promise’ and ‘A Mother’s Secret’. She can be reached at email@example.com.