On this morning Saraswati struggled to get out of bed.
Well, I say morning because the birds had begun their morning raga’s. Long before the beautiful hues of blue streaked the sky across the dry land. It was the one time that the land felt magical and mystical. A land claimed over the years by the desert. Few shrubs remained to tell the story of long gone days of the changing of the seasons through hues of green, to golden and then brown. Furrows cut and burnt into the white caked mud told the story of a river that once must have flowed.No one spoke much in the village of Baramur. What needed to be done was simple and ritualistic. Nor was there the usual merriment of festive occasions provoked by the mating rituals of young men and women. For if heard carefully this was a village of older people. The dominant sounds of the day would be the dry cracked sounds of older vocal chords, not contradicted by the clear sing song lyricism of the young men and women.
Quietly Saraswati put on the bells on her anklets, making sure that the sound would not wake up her husband. She loved this sound, and would walk with a step harder than normal, so that the other women at the well would her be envious of her anklet bells. It was the only thing her parents could give when she left her village in a time that seemed so far far away now. And as Saraswati walked by her husband she rebelliously put her foot down hard to play with destiny a little. But she knew that the emaciated body ravaged by the desert and by age, snoring through an open toothless mouth would not wake up till the flies flowed uncomfortably across his mouth looking for left overs.
But a thrill passed her every time she did that. Imagine if he woke up to discover that his wife was not at all the woman that he stored away in one corner of his mind ! Saraswati rushed out, bent over and coughed. Her back ached, but there was no escape. They said that this was how it was, but at fifteen Saraswati’s heart played a song with what lay on the horizon,
And so it was everyday. Just as the hues of blue showed the silhouette of the village, young girls emerged like ghostly shadows from a fairy tale. These were the child brides of the well’ as they had become known to villages far away. As the rivers and the wells retreated into their distant sanctuaries, leaving in their wake villages and communities desolate but for older people unable to move to the cities to fight another existence, another life, as always the Caste system provided the solution. This was after all a village of higher castes.
The priests let it be known that for young virgin to be married into a higher caste would absolve her whole family and their lineage of bondage into servitude. Young low caste girls were consecrated by the priests in temples (some for periods longer than normal) and amid much ceremony, a procession of 20 young girls were sent from outlying villages to Baramur. It was a strange sight – young girls nervous and giggly, walking into a village to welcomed by bent old men and women, anxiously looking for young high caste men that had agreed to marry them. Only when the marriage rites began, and as the drums played and the girls emerged from the huts with coy smiles on their faces did they realize that the bent old bodies in tattered turbans were about to become their husbands.
Saraswati remembered Paras, from another village who ran away screaming half naked. She was just 12. Three weeks later she returned. her family had closed the doors to her, busy as they were paying obeisance to the higher Gods of the high caste community. She was sent to the temple to be purified of her sins by the priest, the rituals of which had gone on for 3 weeks. Finally Paras had nowhere to go, but to where she was told that her new Gods and her Karma had deigned for her. The village of Baramur to her 73 year old husband.
Saraswati and most of the other girls were more fortunate. Their husbands had little interest in their young bodies, or the energy to indulge even if they did. But there were more immediate pressing needs. Some of the old people needed nursing even in the daily chores. The houses needed to be cleaned and meagre kitchens needed to be kept going. But beyond that there was a more fundamental need that the girls had been brought for.
The nearest working well was 12 kilometers away.There was no path even and the only way to get there was by foot.That’s how the name came – “Child Brides of the Well”.Each day the girls walked 4 hours to the well, and back 5 hours laden with pitchers of water.As they would for the rest of their young lives.
But there was something about Saraswati this morning. Paras was intrigued. For 3 years they had walked together to the well. Mostly in silence. After all there was not much that could provide young girls fodder for gossip in Baramur. And little drama. When Paras’s mother in law had started to beat her in a drunken state. In a fit of rage Paras had slapped her back and the whole village decided that she needed to be taught a lesson. For two whole days Paras was not allowed a single drop of water.
Then there was the time when Saraswati had started her menstrual cycle. She panicked and could not tell anyone. Terrified that blood stains would be found on her clothes, Saraswati would tie a rag full of fine desert sand around her parts to absorb the blood, and so naturally she had an internal infection. Each day Paras and Saraswati would use a couple of handfuls of water to clean her parts. That was the secret that bonded them together.
That they had used a little of the water they carried all the way back to the village for their own use.
As the evening shadows came, and Paras and Saraswati would approach the village after hauling their now full pots of water. Exhausted, they would pause by the lone tree at the outskirts of the Village and pray fervently. When spotted they would swear they were dutiful wives praying for the long lives of their creaking husbands. But the prayers were secretly directed towards a different God. Rather than the God of Eternal Youth, they would be praying to the God of Water. Praying for the Well to dry up.
The Gods seem to be answering their prayers too. The well was going dry. The next well was too far to comprehend. When the water ran out, the girls would be freed. Their village would finally die out and the young girls, no longer needed, would be free to go. Having fulfilled their Karma, the High Caste God’s would deliver them a different destiny.The Well was used by all 14 villages in three districts that it served. Only one of the villages used to get water supplied in a tanker pulled by two tired cows, as a dirt track still led to the village. That was because the distant cousin of the mistress of a district politician owned land there, and would visit with friends in noisy modern four wheelers. That was always an occasion, because the villagers would pick empty beer bottles left in their wake. Anything to store water in. Paras and Saraswati often wondered at the exciting lives of the young girls that went to that village to get married.
But Paras still wondered at the spring in Saraswati’s step today. The bells on her anklets seemed to beckon even the birds to gossip. Paras wanted to know what secrets the birds shared with Saraswati. Her footsteps on the parched earth were no more the rhythm of the plodding of a cow. The parched earth seemed to come alive with uncertain dance of each step.
But Saraswati would not tell. She just giggled and put a distance between her and Paras. The shadows cast by the early sun were still long enough to connect the two, and Paras tried to capture the secret by constantly tugging at Saraswati’s shadow. But then Saraswati took her Pitcher off her head, and lay down on her back. Stretching her arms wide to feel the coolness of the yet young earth on her body. The shadow was gone, and Paras suddenly felt completely naked. Never before had she taken this journey without the comfort of another shadow always walking side by side. The rhythm that kept them going these years, was suddenly broken.
Now if you were a Vulture swooping down to investigate, you would be forgiven for being confused. For lying still, hands stretched in the vast flat yellow landscape were two young bodies. It is not often you saw food potential so still yet breathing life as if they had just discovered it.
Paras felt as if she could hear Saraswati’s wild heart beat through the fluid earth. She felt hers responding, afraid that miles away, back in the village they would hear their rebellion.
“you were touched ?” Paras almost afraid of the next word “……..Where ?”
Their fingers touched. Lost in some imaginative world, Saraswati gently led Paras’s hand to her breast and laid it there.
“and .. ?”
As Saraswati took Paras’s hand down and held it between her thighs , Paras panicked and tried to escape. But Saraswati suddenly leaned over and looked straight into Para’s eyes. Holding them with a fierceness and intensity that told the story of the unimaginable.
Something changed that moment. Did the winds pick up ? Carrying Saraswati’s words across the land to her lover ? The birds went wild, confused at century old rules being broken. The desert throbbed in resonance with Saraswati’s breathless words as she poured out every acute memory of her encounter with absolute intimacy. Not even the Gods, nor centuries old tradition had the power to stop the discovery of a young girl of her feminine self.
“Who …”Caught in the first flush of Saraswati’s forbidden words, Paras was now panicking.
“The boy”Saraswati was suddenly coy. Had she revealed too much ? Would Paras possibly carry the secret in her belly forever ? But Saraswati was feeling brave today. She felt a surge of power.
“The boy that comes every six months with his father to sell medicinal oils”
It was all too real for Paras now. The panic swept up engulfing her entire self. She leaped up and screamed at Saraswati.
“Sin ! Sin ! “The Vulture squawked as the birds died down. Paras kicked dirt into Sarawati’s face. Again and again.
The sun was stronger. Higher. The shadows were much much shorter.
Saraswati ran after Paras. The Pitcher precariously balanced on her head. Desperately trying to keep up with Paras’s shadow. For where could she go without it ?
“I will die if you tell”Saraswati screamed. “I will deny it ! The whole village will know you are a liar “.
The wind was not listening anymore. The birds had lost interest. The Vulture looked for other prey. The sun directly overhead now, was casting no shadow. Paras and Saraswati were free of each other, but Saraswati kept shouting, till she was hoarser than the morning crows.
Paras whirled around. and slapped Saraswati hard. So hard that Saraswati’s pitcher fell down. But even then the instinctive laws of Water kicked in. Paras caught the Pitcher on time and roughly handed it back to Saraswati.
“He swore I was the only one”
Paras’s confession was not as passionate as Saraswati’s, but just as fierce.
The shadows were long again as the sun wilted and got tired of the hot day. But Saraswati and Paras no longer cared to be in each other’s shadow as the Well came into sight.
Nor did they pay much attention to the 50 odd women fighting for the narrow space on the perimeter of the Well. The Pitchers defined the Caste of the women. The upper caste ones had brass pitchers, but even though adopted into the higher caste, Saraswati and Paras could only afford clay Pitchers. It was a struggle to get your pitcher into the well and yet avoid it smashing against the brass ones or the side of the well. But this was a daily chore and both the girls went through the paces. Other matters on their minds.
Paras carefully watched her footsteps. She carried a much heavier load on her head than when she started. Balancing her pitcher on her head, she wondered if Saraswati still had a spring in her step. She had left Saraswati far enough behind for her not to notice. Paras tried a spring in her step. Like a little dance. The pitcher almost fell and Paras just caught it in time. But a little laugh escaped her.
Paras froze. Had Saraswati noticed her ? She looked around, and Pitcher carefully balanced on her head, Saraswati was running towards her. Secretly Paras was glad. Five hours was a lonely walk back without another shadow to keep you company.
Saraswati came up to Paras. She looked down and danced a little step. Daring Paras to do the same. Paras did, and the two young girls, having discovered a common spring in their steps, giggled.
“He’s not coming back for six months”
“And we will be on this journey everyday”Replied Saraswati.
“For the rest of our lives”said Paras sadly.
“No, replied the now optimistic Saraswati “Only till the Well runs dry”.
“Only till the Well runs dry”Agreed Paras, as both the girls lowered their pitchers and knelt in fervent prayers.
The village of Barmur was creaking to a halt. Getting ready to give up on the rigours of the day, hoping the dreams of the night would provide an escape to those that could sleep. They searched anxiously for the last two girls to return from the Well. Needing the Water and their young hands to do the nightly chores. In the distance the saw one long shadow. Just one.
Had one of the girls run away ? Moans of tired curses escaped the lips of those that imagined the chores that would get left. Already there was talk of how to make one girl do the work of two.
But to those that looked carefully, they would have seen two girls, their hands on each other’s shoulders. A spring in their step.
Two girls and one shadow.
@ Shekhar Kapur