Sita walked as fast as she could with an empty pail on her head. “Hey! Malini, wait for me,” she called out to her friend.
“Hurry up, slow poke,” Malini called back without breaking her stride. Malini was eleven - a full year older than Sita - and had much longer legs.
Sita caught up with her at the river. A pebbly slip of water, it ran beyond the settlement of shanties that comprised their neighborhood, separating it from the city proper. High compound walls enclosed the middle-class homes directly on the opposite side, preventing their occupants from looking out upon the shanties.
“What do you think it looks like on the inside?” Malini asked, inclining her head to indicate the walls.
Sita dipped her pail in the low water to fill it. “I've looked through the back gate a few times when I went with Amma to pick up their wash. I saw lots of grass and flowers.” She paused to admire the beautifully regular patterns of brickwork in the red walls. “They had glass windows that shone blue like the sky.”
Returning to their neighboring homes with full buckets on their heads, even Malini had to walk slower. As they approached Sita's door, Malini stopped short. “Shh. They're talking about you.”
The girls set down their pails, trying not to make a sound. Sita crept close to the tilted doorway and squinted through the crack between the hinges, careful not to let her shadow fall upon the door. Malini followed. Within the leaning walls of wood and corrugated iron, they heard the excited voice of Sita's father, Ranga. “It's the most auspicious union,” he said.
“He's a smart boy - school-educated - and they ask no dowry,” her grandmother emphasized to the other family members gathered.
Sita and Malini looked at each other, standing close together, their eyes wide. Both the girls could hardly suppress their giggles as they listened. The charts had been drawn, the counsel of the stars interpreted, and all signs encouraged Sita's union with this boy. Soon Sita would be wed.
After this accidental revelation, Sita listened carefully to everything. She looked for clues in her elders' behavior to discover more about when she was to be married and how the details of it would be carried out, sometimes enlisting her two best friends to help spy for her. But they were never as sneaky as they believed and the whole escapade often ended in laughter. Sita was anxious for the ceremony, for the attention, for becoming more like a grown up. She drew marvelous fantasies about the gifts of jewelry and saris that she would receive and about how she would look so like a grown woman when she was dressed and made up.
At last, one afternoon, Sita's mother and grandmother took her aside to measure her for a new blouse and skirt. But her mother's face betrayed the real gravity of the moment. Never able to contain herself, Sita had a precocious way of making others deal directly with her. She asked, “What is it, Amma? Is there something you want to tell me?”
Her mother, Shakuntala, placed her baby son to her breast. Quietly she announced, “We have chosen a boy for you, Sita. He is a very nice boy, and we know the family well. You would remember him - Kailas. We visited his family some months back.”
Sita looked steadily back at her mother, then blinked as blood rushed from the pit of her stomach to her forehead and fingertips. She felt her heartbeat resound through her body. She did remember Kailas, the son of her father's good friend. She had met him a few times when they had gone to visit his family. They played together; he took her out to meet the other children in his colony. She thought him very clever because no one could ever find him when they all played hiding games. He even performed magic tricks, and he could read anything - even English words. He was at least five years Sita's senior, and he was in school.
The men in Kailas's household were all educated, and the family enjoyed a better station in life than her own, though they belonged to the same caste and community. Numerous times over the years these two families had aided each other in times of need, and Ranga had Kailas's father to thank for his current job as a porter at the India Star Guest House - the most lucrative job he had ever held. Sita remembered, too, that Kailas was very handsome, as boys go, though it had been many months since she had last seen him. A girl could do worse than Kailas, she thought.
Her grandmother wrapped a thick, cotton string loosely around Sita's upper arm and marked on it with a pencil. She held Sita by the shoulder and twisted her around to measure from the nape of her neck to the middle of her back. With each measurement, she exclaimed about how tall Sita had grown. “But you never eat enough,” she proclaimed. “As hard as your father and mother work, there is enough food to feed you properly.”
Sita let her grandmother manipulate her body, raising an arm, straightening her shoulders, whatever was necessary to get the measurements for her new clothes, as she looked at her mother in silence. Shakuntala's expression was plain, almost preoccupied, as she shifted Babu from one breast to the other. Her gaze drifted downward along Sita's body, hovering over the childish angularity of her frame, shoulders, elbows and knees.
Sita noticed for the first time the few strands of grey that reached back from her mother's temples into the tight bun behind her head; her grandmother's hair, too, was mostly white, her teeth nearly gone. As I grow up, they grow old, Sita observed to herself. Before long, I will have a child and begin to grow old, too. She knotted her forehead as she tried to picture her grown-up life. But hard as she tried, she could not imagine it. Not like their lives, she insisted to herself restlessly. Not just in these ordinary places. I want to grow up and see something else, explore somewhere else. She recalled the enchanted gardens and blue-sky windowpanes of the homes across the river.
Her grandmother spun Sita around again and raised both her arms, looping a fresh piece of string around her chest. “Ayyo! She is starting to grow here.” She sounded both pleased and scolding. Shakuntala leaned around and looked at the young swell beneath the faded blue blouse that Sita wore. Sita looked down herself. Indeed, she was growing. It had not occurred to her until this moment that this indistinctly rising contour was a first sign of impending womanhood.
“When is the wedding going to be?” She asked.
“It is still some time away,” her grandmother said. Seeing the disappointment in Sita's face, she added, “Before the monsoons begin.”
“How far away does he live?” Sita asked, anxiously.
Her mother answered. “Not too far. You've been there yourself. Don't worry, I don't think you'll be ready to go away so soon. You are not a grown woman, yet.”
Sita did have one cousin who had been sent to her husband's home right away, within days after her marriage at age eleven, but she knew such was not generally the custom in her community. Upon her insistence, an older cousin had once explained to her that it was only after menarche that a bride would go and live with her husband's family. This event was occasion for the grandest ceremony of all, lasting for days, celebrating her fertility and the transference to her new home and family. But for now, Sita could not think beyond the wedding ceremony.
Lakshmi looked forward to accepting Sita as her daughter-in-law. Kailas's marriage was so late in being decided and she had waited too long for the day when she could rely on the energetic help of a young girl in her home. In the meantime, with her two daughters married off, her household had shrunk in the past few years, and that secretly distressed her. She wanted her home full of life, full of family and future promise.
In fact, choosing Sita as Kailas's wife had been primarily her idea. Not that Sita was Lakshmi's first choice, her family being of such modest means and utterly uneducated.
But girls with larger dowries were getting offers from the families of boys who were thought to be more 'reliable' than Kailas; boys with spotless reputations. For, as hard as she tried to reform him, Kailas was known to indulge himself in unsavory curiosities, roaming around at night with beggars and drunks and worse. Though some in their community questioned his character, Lakshmi did not accept that her son was ruined. He's only a boy, and children do things because they don't know better. He is bored, perhaps, or curious, as the young are always curious. She had reasoned that the solution was to get him a wife.
One night, on their sleeping mat, she had told her husband Siddappa, “Listen, what about Ranga's daughter, Sita? She is certainly hard working. Kailas has always enjoyed her company a great deal.”
“Ranga has no dowry to offer,” Siddappa countered.
“But the suitable girls with dowries are already married. Kailas is getting too old to wait any longer. Sita will earn enough on her own to make up for the lack of dowry in a short time. I've seen how diligently she works.”
“Kailas needs a sharp and energetic girl who will keep him engaged. His problem is that he is too smart for his own good and his mind strays; he cannot keep focused on family life. The right girl will help him.”
“Perhaps you are right. Sita certainly is an exceptional girl. I have known Ranga since boyhood, and we have a long history of good relations with his family.”
Lakshmi immersed herself in her son's marriage ceremony with deep satisfaction. The young couple was dressed in saffron-colored cotton - he in a dhoti and shawl, she in a sari - tied together at their corners. They followed the pujari's instruction obediently and self-consciously, as he chanted Sanskrit prayers over their heads. They held onto the coconut he handed them, their four young hands grasping its fibrous surface, each shy about touching the other. Thus entwined, they remained mute, heads bowed, as each family member came by to drop turmeric rice over their hands. Their exhaustion was apparent in the slow beat of their eyelids, in their stifled yawns, in their curved postures.
Afterwards, family, friends, neighbors by the score gathered for the feast, toward which Lakshmi and Siddappa contributed generously, knowing that Sita's family would not be able to provide in the style they would prefer. The entire proceedings were carried out in Lakshmi's own home, newly whitewashed and given a fresh coat of dung for the floor. Guests filled the house and spilled out in front of the other homes of their crowded neighborhood, as Lakshmi and her daughters walked among them scooping rice, vegetables, and sweets onto their crisp banana leaf plates.
Though it was a joyful day, Lakshmi was relieved when it was over. Preparations for the day had overwhelmed her, not to mention the expense of it all. Still, she had no regrets about seeing her son's wedding in the grandest style they could muster. She was certain it impressed the neighbors - even those who had refused Kailas as their own son-in-law. And when she sent Sita home with her parents at the end of the wedding celebration, Lakshmi hoped the young bride understood how much she was welcomed into her new family.
Everywhere Sita looked around the temple yard, oil lamps and torches burned to illuminate the Ugadi festival puja; sweet smells of cardamom rose from local cooking hearths, and the evening's dusky hues smoothed the rough edges of the world. The pujaris of this temple had just finished chanting ancient prayers to the gods who lived here. They washed the feet of the garlanded statues and dropped milk and petals over the stone heads while the smoke of burning incense wafted around the frozen faces of the gods. They appeared nearly oblivious to the crowd that had gathered, even as they took the offerings of coconuts, bananas, and cooked rice from the anonymous hands of the devotees.
In this buzzing, bustling temple compound, Sita stood so close to Kailas she could smell him; her face at his left shoulder, she was tantalized by his boyish scent and warmth. She looked up at him, her gaze following the soft, black coils of his hair, resting on the slope of his neck. Kailas kept his face turned away, though she leaned toward him, inches away from touching his arm. A hunger, a sweet discomfort, sourced from somewhere behind her heart, drew out and settled onto the surface of her skin. She wanted to touch him but she did not dare. They stood locked in a sea of people, their backs against a wall of worn stone, one perimeter of the small temple yard. His elder sisters, Kamala and Pooja, with their children, mingled in the crowd a short distance away.
Every year on festival days and celebrations, Kailas, accompanied by his sisters, their husbands, and children, spent the day with Sita's family. But no longer did the couple play together as children and never were they left alone with each other. In the two years since they had been formally married in the priestly ritual, this was the fourteenth time Sita and Kailas had been together.
Sita remembered every one of their meetings in colorful detail. She dwelled upon the curve of his smile, the second and third teeth on the top left side jutting, one forward and one back from the otherwise regular row. She remembered the way his curls fell about his face. And she recalled how once, more recently, as she helped serve dinner at a cousin's wedding, mounding a heap of rice onto his leaf, he momentarily put his hand on hers, laughing for her to please stop because he would soon burst from eating too much. Every time she thought of that moment, she felt again the unexpected thrill of that touch, as though some wordless secret had passed between them.
Each time Kailas left at the end of the festivities, she found herself thinking more and more about him. Her girlfriends noticed her mooning and routinely teased her when no adults were too near, “Sita misses her Kailas. She prays to be taken up into his heavenly abode.” She blushed as they all laughed, standing waist-deep in the swift river current, surrounded by bright, billowing colors of the saris and sheets that they washed.
But now, standing beside him against the wall, Sita wanted Kailas to look at her. She edged closer, staring at his face with unabashed adoration. At last Kailas turned to her. His face bore no special sweetness toward her; rather, his mouth slack, he looked defeated, even a bit frightened. “What do you want?” he asked.
Sita flushed. Her heart sped up but she did not turn away from him. She continued looking into his eyes, hoping he could see that she was glad to be his wife. But he did not oblige. He turned away again and stared squarely forward, clenching his jaw.
“Let's go back home. I'm getting hungry,” Kailas's eldest sister, Kamala, called back to them. “You must come this way.”
Sita turned - half disappointed, half relieved - toward her sister-in-law and began to pick her way through the crowd. Kailas followed. Soon they emerged onto a quiet street that dwindled into a path along the river as it meandered homeward. Kamala and Pooja walked a few feet ahead in the gathering dark, talking and laughing loudly, occasionally calling out to their young children who raced ahead of them. Kailas walked very slowly, and Sita found herself hanging back as well.
“Go on ahead,” he said at last.
“You are my husband. I will walk with you.”
“Why do you want to walk with me?”
“We can talk.”
“I have nothing to say to you. And what can you say to me? You're just a stupid washer-girl.”
“I'm not stupid,” she said defiantly. Of this Sita felt confident, and though Kailas's coldness stung her, his criticism did not.
“Well I'm in eleventh standard, and I can speak English. What can you do?”
Sincerely impressed, Sita ventured, “Maybe you can teach me a little bit.”
Sita wished to dissolve this antagonism that had cropped up between them, but her words came out like a scolding parent. “School costs money, you know. I wish I could go to school too, but we can't afford it. So maybe you can teach me something of what you learn.”
Kailas stopped walking. He turned on her fiercely. “Why should I? I don't owe you anything!”
Sita was taken aback. She looked ahead to her sisters-in-law, but they had already rounded a bend far ahead, their laughter thinning and dispersing in the moist, dark air. Kailas stepped belligerently toward her, grabbing her upper arms and pinning her against the trunk of a squat mayflower tree near the edge of the path. Sita's breath caught in her throat. A tide of new sensations overtook her: these boy-hands touching her body, his face close to hers, sneering. She cringed under his anger, confused, even while the appetite of her skin was awakened.
“What do you want from me? Is this what you want?” he barked in a whisper, pushing his right hand roughly across her breasts.
Sita gasped. She felt her nipples stiffen. Overwhelmed by his anger and the intoxication of his musk, she was dislodged from herself, thrust into an unknown territory of sensation, of need, of fear.
“Boys at school say this is what girls want,” he squeezed her left breast hard, until she winced with pain and then he pushed himself away from her.
The moment he let go of her, Sita hugged her arms across her chest and fell to her knees, breathless, whimpering, her mind spinning. She looked up at Kailas, her forehead knotted with despair.
Kailas leaned against the broken trunk of a pipal tree on the far side of the path. He covered his face with his hands. In the moonlight Sita could see that he was breathing hard, as though he were sobbing, but she heard only her own breath and the rush of the blood in her ears.
She picked herself up as quickly as she could, running down the path toward home. She ran with her arms still crossed over her chest, squeezing her own, thin shoulders.
Kailas ran after her. “I'm sorry,” he whispered behind her in the night, his voice breaking. “I'm sorry, Sita. I didn't mean it.”