The Birthmark - Part I MANJUL BAJAJ
A strange, shrill sound was tugging at the comforting blanket of morning sounds Bhushan was wrapped in – the distant crowing of a rooster, the splutter-gurgle, splutter-gurgle of a ube well gushing in a neighbouring field, the twittering-twitter-twit sound of birds in the trees.
He stretched out his legs. It was time to get up and go back to the main house – Ulsha would be on the lookout for him.
Bhushan smiled, the thought of his lovely, dark, softly smiling wife warming his limbs, suddenly making him feel wide awake and eager to start the day.
Bhushan had spent the night in a small shack by the fields. It was the wheat harvesting season and the work went on till late at night – there was no time to be wasted at this time of the year.
At last it was all over – the wheat harvested, threshed, packed in sacks, weighed and loaded on to the tractors, and the straw baled and standing like storybook-house shaped stacks in the corner of the field. As the morning light began to filter in through the door, his back and limbs still felt stiff with the previous day’s exertions, even though it was the Bihari migrant labourers who had done all the hard work. Just overseeing the entire operation could wear a man down to the bones.
The shrill sound was nearer now, sharper. A woman was screaming his name!
‘Bhuuu-shan Phraa… jee…! Bhuuuu-shan phraa… jee!… Hurr… eee! Come quick… leee!’
Jeeto’s voice, panting, full of panic, reached him seconds before his sister-in-law herself stood framed in the doorway, her fair face flushed, her breasts heaving. ‘Hurry! Hurry! Leave everything! Ulsha is not waking up! Something’s gone wrong with her!’
Her slender frame was trembling.
Bhushan’s mind dissociated from his body in that instant.
It was another man who sprinted the half kilometre distance through the fields to the main house, a sobbing Jeeto trailing behind him. It was another man who took in the scene at the house – his wife lying unconscious on a makeshift stretcher, his mother in charge of the situation, tense, but in command of herself.
‘Hurry up, Bhushan, there is no time to be lost! We must rush them to Jalandhar immediately.’ She had decided on Jalandhar though it was a full twenty kilometres further off than Phagwara. It was best to head straight for the Civil Hospital in Jalandhar in an emergency.
Just yesterday evening Bhushan had been with Ulsha and she had been fine.
‘What happened, Ma?’ asked that other man mechanically. The real Bhushan was too numb to question anything. His mother had been a midwife at government dispensaries across the district for over thirty-five years – she could be expected to know about birth and birthings. And death too, for in these parts birth and death often came wrapped in the same blanket.
‘Don’t waste time, puttar! We have to hurry!’ she responded, her usually impassive face puckered into a fretful frown.
Rajjoji was a rotund woman. Her soft, fleshy body was concealed completely in a full-sleeved cotton salwar kameez of a nondescript flowery print, in muted beiges and greens. Her grey hair hung down in a thinning plait which ended in a shock of black hair, a remnant from the time she used to dye her hair. When she retired from her job as a midwife, she had dispensed with that ritual.
Bhushan nodded and started to walk towards the shed where the tractor was parked.
‘No! No! Not the tractor, it will take us too long. Ask RK Taxi Stand for their Omni van.’ The van, used primarily by wedding parties and large family groups travelling out together from the village, also doubled up as the local ambulance whenever necessary.
Seated in the van Rajjoji could feel the walls closing in around her. ‘Satnaam! Satnaam! Satnaam! WaheGuru! WaheGuru! WaheGuru!’ she intoned feverishly. In all her sixty years, Rajjoji had not prayed so fervently. Her job as a midwife had kept her too busy to develop the enthusiasm for prayer that had overtaken many of her contemporaries as they approached midlife. But she was no stranger to God either. In times of crisis she knew she could call upon him.
Today, her robust salwar kameez-clad frame was shivering, her hands were shaking as she drew her dupatta tightly over her head, and her lips were trembling as she whispered, ‘Take my life, God, but please save Ulsha Minj and her daughter.’
Ulsha Minj lay, dark and unfathomable, on the stretcher – not in this world but not of the other yet. Even now, as she sat by her daughter-in-law’s side, ceaselessly murmuring prayers to God to spare her life, Rajjoji could not think of her as anything else but Ulsha Minj …
* * * * *
‘What’s your name, girl?’ Rajjoji had asked when Bhushan presented her with this strange, dark girl with flecks of red in her deep-set brown eyes.
‘Where are you from?’
Monosyllabic replies, expressionless eyes, yet the girl looked defiant. Would it work out, having this stranger in their midst?
‘Do you know housework?’
‘You cannot dress like this here,’ said Rajjoji sternly, eyeing the expanse of smooth brown midriff revealed by the girl’s sari. ‘Jeeto, give her two old salwar suits of yours and show her the work around the house,’ Rajjoji ordered her daughter-in-law, Jeeto, a reticent young woman in her mid-twenties.
Where had Bhushan got her? From the cattle market in neighbouring Haryana. He had bought her outright, he said, with the money they got from the sale of the buffaloes. They needed a woman around the house desperately – his mother was too old to manage alone and Jeeto, his brother Kuljeet’s wife, frail from the beginning, had recently been diagnosed with tuberculosis.
The girl had the strength of a horse. She would prepare the cattle feed before anyone else woke up, carry it out to the buffaloes and fetch the firewood on her way back. Then she could take the pails out, water the buffaloes and bring in the fresh milk and water from the bore well for the family. Jeeto would be up by then, tending to the three men – her father-in-law, her husband and Bhushan – giving them tea and then water to wash with.
Rajjoji liked to get Kuljeet’s two sons, aged seven and five, ready for school herself. By then Ulsha Minj could already be stoking the fire to get the day’s meal ready. She was very strong, this tribal girl from the distant mountain forests. And quiet. Very quiet, with a faraway look in her eyes.
Yes, she was a dark horse, that one.
Ulsha Minj lay still and unmoving. A brief grimace of pain crossed Ulsha’s face as Rajjoji lifted her wrist and tried to take her pulse.
‘God, please save her! Please let her not die,’ Rajoji pleaded for the hundredth time in the space of a few minutes.
Opposite her sat Bhushan, staring grimly out of the car window. Through the fifty minutes of the drive, he had sat rigid with shock and not asked his mother what had happened. Thank God for that. She needed to think through what she should tell him. And there was no time to think now – time only for praying and pleading with God. Just this once -- please forgive me, please save her!
They were approaching Jalandhar.
‘Trouble ahead, Bhraaji!’ said the van driver.
As they approached National Highway 1, earlier known as the Grand Trunk Road, connecting Amritsar to Delhi, it looked completely choked – jammed with trucks and tractors carrying this year’s bumper wheat harvest, from the fertile Doaba region nestled between the Beas and the Sutlej rivers, into the Jalandhar market. The driver put on the emergency siren, lights flashing and horn screeching, in a show of strength, demanding a clear passage. The line of tractors and trucks stood its ground, implacable.
Bhushan stepped out to survey the situation, and swore and shook his fist. There was a queue of a kilometre and a half, going all the way up to the octroi checkpoint.
‘Who is she to you, Maji?’ asked the ambulance driver, trying to gauge the seriousness of the situation. He was a new fellow, not from their own Lakhna but from a neighbouring village.
Half-caste slave. Chattel. Witch. Seductress.
‘My daughter!’ Rajjoji sobbed out. His question triggered a storm of weeping, tears pouring uncontrollably down her gnarled cheeks, making rivulets in the folds of her sallow skin. The driver gave her a perplexed look.
Outside, the traffic moved a fraction. Bhushan hopped back in.
‘What is it, Ma? Is she dead?’
But why would his mother cry if Ulsha died? Why was his mother here with them anyway, in this frantic rush to hurry Ulsha to a proper hospital? What did it matter to anyone if Ulsha Minj died? As far as his mother was concerned, for the price of a few buffaloes they could buy another tribal girl from Jharkhand. Except that there would never be another Ulsha Minj …
Quiet, so quiet. Wordless, even as she lay in bed with him. Only her flecked brown eyes spoke. Only her body shared with him its wisdom. The soft rustle of sal leaves, the intoxicating smell of fresh mahua flowers gathered from forest floors, the gurgling of unbridled mountain streams – all of these he could sense when she opened her arms to him. Night could dissolve into day, the skies melt against the earth, man and woman could love each other as equals. That was what Ulsha Minj had taught him when she walked, barefoot and proud, into his loft in the stealth of each night. That was the language her body spoke as she walked out at dawn to get started on the day’s work.
* * * * *
‘Ma, Bauji, I need to get married,’ Bhushan had announced impetuously over dinner one day.
An awkward silence followed his outburst. His bauji looked questioningly at Rajjoji, washed his hands over his stainless steel thali with water from his tumbler and shuffled out slowly.
His older brother, Kuljeet, looked at him in consternation and turned away stiffly, angrily. It was the unwritten rule, unspoken too, just understood – younger sons did not ask to marry. Had he no shame raising this at a time when Jeeto was so ill? Then Kuljeet too walked out.
‘Where are the girls, puttar? You know there are no brides to be found in all of this region. For the few there are, the parents look for boys from London and Amrika,’ said Rajjoji in a mollifying tone. ‘We just have to manage as best as we can,’ she sighed. ‘Yes, Jeeto?’ She looked meaningfully at her daughter-in-law. ‘You will explain it to him.’
Jeeto looked down at her plate and nodded meekly, her fingers twisting her dupatta into a nervous knot.
That night Rajjoji was unable to sleep, worrying about her two sons. What was it about today’s generation, so self-centred and impatient? Bhushan bursting upon them like that at dinner with his demands, no shame that his bauji was sitting there eating. And Kuljeet, her firstborn – she had expected better of him. He should have anticipated this long ago.
But no, he was too busy cosseting that frail wife of his, pandering to her needs.
And Jeeto herself? Mind you, she was a good girl, had come with a substantial dowry, something that was getting rarer and rarer these days, but too coy. Well, if Jeeto wanted to keep the holdings secure for her own boys, she had better take initiative and give Bhushan some attention too.
No shame in it either. It was sanctioned by tradition. Hadn’t Draupadi herself slept with all five of the Pandava brothers?
Rajjoji tossed and turned with these unquiet thoughts for most of the night, beside the gently snoring bauji. These were not matters for mothers to discuss with their sons and daughters-in-law – surely they could have shown her that much respect, spared her this embarrassment?
‘Bhushan,’ said Kuljeet to his brother in the fields the next day as they set the tractor up for the day’s ploughing operations, ‘I am worried about Jeeto. The TB medication makes her nauseous, and she is already weak. She cannot handle too much yet.’
‘But Ulsha is taking care of all the housework, isn’t she?’
Kuljeet looked away. Stared straight ahead, stiff and angry, and did not speak to his brother for the rest of the day.
It was only in the middle of the night, his nostrils filled with the scent of his Ulsha, his arm curved around her sleeping body, his mind drifting between waking and sleeping, that Bhushan finally comprehended what his brother had been trying to say and why he had been angry all day.
He burst impatiently into his brother’s room early next morning. ‘Phraaji!’ he said, ‘It is Ulsha Minj I wish to marry. You and Jeeto must back me on this.’
For many days on end after Bhushan’s wish was made known to her, Rajjoji sat on the charpoy outside the house, beating her soft, wobbly chest and lamenting loudly. She sobbed at the thought of what the neighbours would say, and all her relatives too. She wailed loudly at visions of half-caste children running around their fields. But Bhushan was belligerent, rebellious, unwilling to give in. He had Kuljeet and Jeeto’s support in this.
‘We will cross that bridge when we come to it,’ said her husband to Rajjoji one night as she wept inconsolably at the thought of the looming taints on their bloodline – of the dark children Bhushan and that black witch of his would force onto her lap to dandle.
He was a man of few words but solid good sense, her husband. The age of unwanted babies was long gone, thanks to the advances in medical science, he pointed out to her. Who should have known that better than Rajjoji herself?
‘I am sorry I overreacted,’ she told Bhushan the next morning, ‘but keep the ceremony simple, please. You know how relatives talk.’
* * * * *
CONTINUED TOMORROW ...
Manjul Bajaj is a poet and writer based in India. For much of her adult life Manjul has worked as a consultant in the field of rural development and the environment but is now focusing on her writing. She lives with her husband, two sons and a dog. She is the author of the novel Come, Before Evening Falls and Another Man’s Wife, a recently released collection of short stories.