Behind The Lattice: Part 5.

Darkness has fallen. The night was silent. Silent except for the loud,harsh jangling of a payal, as it’s heart-broken owner ran through the deserted corridors,lit only by a slowly dying flame of a torch.

She stopped when she reached the fateful parapet, gasping for breath, teary-eyed, conflicted and above all, simply hurt. In retrospect, it didn’t have anything to do with her friend,her alleged betrayal, his choice, her infatuation. In the end, she was hurt, because all she wanted…was to be wanted.
She slowly sank to her knees, and she cried. And she cried until she could cry no more. It is this moment that often grants silence to the mind. when one is so exhausted,one simply is.
And so she was. On the edge,trying to hold her universe together. The night grew deeper. The hour,darker. But yet she remained where she was,still and unmoving. Silent but cognizant. Thinking. Processing. Understanding. Trying. But the matters of the heart are not so easily resolved. And with a pang, she realized, things would never be the same. She could not be the person she was yesterday because she had changed since then. The nagging feeling of betrayal gnawed at her. Giving her no peace. Regressing only to strike again,more viciously.
In that night, one seemingly endless moment, she was alone. A girl,unlike any other in her world and yet exactly like so many before her.
Alone, sitting on the cold,marbled floor of the parapet,the blue skirts of her garb spread around her. Her head resting on her knees,her arms wrapped around them. Trying to pull it all together. With the moonlight shining on her, She seemed almost other worldly. A kind of ethereal beauty seemed to surround her then. Staring deeply into the night,Zohra sat there. Waiting. Watching. For something to make her feel better. For someone to hold her hand and say it would be alright. But no one did. And nothing happened. Until that night,like every night must,came to an end.

Dawn broke. I won’t tell you she felt better when it did. I can’t tell you she healed. I haven’t the audacity to belittle her emotions and say she felt like everything would be alright.
Because when the sun rose that day, it seemed a little colder. A little less bright.
When she finally stood up, her body ached from staying still in the cold for so long. Her legs felt like they were being stuck with pins and needles. A thousand nerves set on fire. For a moment the physical pain made the heartache pale in comparison. But the pain faded, the ache did not.
But when I saw my heroine standing there, biting her lip, silent in face of her pain. I knew and so did she, that she’d be alright. Not today. Or tomorrow. Or perhaps even months from now. However at sometime in the future, she would heal.
One day she’d get up and her heart wouldn’t feel so bruised anymore. She wouldn’t spend the days wondering about what could have been.
The corridors wouldn’t pulsate with a tenacity of their own,bringing up falsified memories. The lump in her throat would ease, and the weight in her stomach would dissolve.
And when it did, she would breathe again.

I know not what happened to her then.
Maybe she lived in misery.
Maybe her happy ending was in finding the strength to start all over again.

When I last eyes on her she was standing tall, caving just for a moment before she returned to her world. She had a small smile on her face when the wind swept her hair around her shielding her face from everything she wished she’d never set eyes on. I closed my eyes to savour that moment of incognition, when I opened my eyes again she was gone. She’d disappeared.
And there on the floor lay a payal it chained her,she felt. So she left it behind.
Behind The Lattice.

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All stories end in death, he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.-Ernest Hemingway.

Perhaps this one would have too, were it not for the friend who said to me- ‘ you wouldn’t write something like that, You’re a strong person, your character would be strong too.’ To her I would like to say ‘Thank you’ for believing in me and giving me strength.
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Write hard and clear about what hurts.-Hemingway.

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Behind the Lattice: Part 4.

In the end,she mused,it was her fault. It was the denial,she reasoned,the main factor due to which she hadn’t confided in Rukmini. The reason that she lied through her teeth when Rukmini asked her,if she felt anything,anything at all for the man who’d stolen herself from her. But even as she convinced herself of this, she had a sinking realization that perhaps the reason was a far more baser emotion,Fear. Fear of judgement. Fear of Failure. Fear that he would never love her the way she did.
She lost count of the number of times she lay awake at night,lost in thought,dreaming of an impossible future.
It had been three months since Greg had first made his entrance into the Haveli,and into her dreary life.
Three months of stealing looks from behind the lattice,always finding an excuse to be on the parapet overlooking the entrance.
Three months of standing silently,eyes lowered, at the back and call of the Sahib and his company,courtesy of Jodhaa’s perceptive nature and alleged lack of need for Zohra’s services every time Greg was around after his initial stay there.

And so the days passed,undemanding and allowing for diversions that allowed her to deceive herself.
Until the day the blinds were forced to fall.
Our Heroine’s anguish may best be described in her own words,for these thoughts flew so rapidly through her head,that a third person would never be able to comprehend them.
An Excerpt from the thoughts of Zohra, a lady of a different sort.
I felt hurt and betrayed. She was my friend. my closest companion. someone to whom I could reveal anything. And when she said that she had given herself to him,my heart broke . I understood what writers meant when they said a whirlwind of emotions.. But I kept my face straight. my emotions hidden. I said it was fine. That alone,was her first clue that something was amiss. I despised the word fine. Despised it implied normalcy. Hated it with a fiery passion,not unlike the kind of pain I was feeling. I felt sick in my stomach. And through it all I breathed. I kept a straight face,failing a little ,and for the brief moments when the mask fell,she saw the damage she had wrought. But I covered it up. it was fine.

With a heavy heart,I asked that she begin at the beginning,sparing no detail. It was done anyhow, perhaps the situation could be an excuse. And she began.
It started just like it did with me,waiting on the Sahib and Greg ,the same seemingly innocent yet meaningful brushes,always carefully calculated to seem accidental or unconsciously done. Something that I, in my lost daydreams had noticed occurring with anyone besides me. Of course my head was lost in the clouds,thinking of all the what ifs and could bes. He never looked twice,never gave any indication, that he felt like I did.
Lost. Confused. Intrigued. Attracted.

So why then did I lose my heart?
To someone who wouldn’t have even noticed me had it not been for my wilful,tempestuous nature?
Someone to whom I knew I wasn’t worth a second glance?
Someone,whom, if I’d known the consequence of loving,I never would have dared?
Because he was different. He believed in things I could scarcely fathom,and had a trait of inbred arrogance I found myself helplessly drawn to.
Like the proverbial moth drawn to the flame that burns it.

And I denied it. Profusely. To the extent where I believed it myself.
As Rukmini spoke ,my traitorous heart whispered,maybe if I’d admitted it to myself,confided in my friend like I had since I came here,I wouldn’t be sitting with a broken heart and a seemingly curious and benign smile,as my faith in my fundamental self shattered.

Somewhere in the midst of these thoughts I could still hear her speak. She spoke of how she’d been offered an alternative to our life. The firaang , had offered to take her back with him. Not for a position of the household staff,but as a kept woman. Men had certain needs and someone had to fulfill them. And when offered a choice,he had chosen her.By virtue of chance,she had a choice,one that was actually valid and not a formality, for the gentleman refused to take a woman against her will.
Rukmini said yes. He had bedded her,and made the necessary arrangements to take her along when he left.

After that I couldn’t bear to hear more. My ears wouldn’t stop ringing. All I could think,over and over,was what had occurred between them. And how it stung,because she was my companion,my friend and she had taken the man I loved.
Perhaps what stung the most was the realization that had she been aware of my feelings,she would have said no. She would never intentionally hurt me.

I ran.

Behind the Lattice: Part 3.

‘Yeh jitni aakhein num hain,ghute dam hain kam hain,
Aur kya kya kuch khud par hi,sehne wale hum hain?’

The ability to trust.

When the world couldĀ  use more of it. Unfortunately she lived in a world that made a mockery of it. She’d been burnt, heartbroken even. Not in the romantic way,but by the friends she’d had. Losing friends was hard but inĀ  her short life, one of the first things she’d learnt as that she was expendable. Trust was not a thing that came to her easily anymore and that made her heart ache. She should be better than that,not scarred and bitter like this. Humanity should be better than this. Not a group that delighted in making lives miserable.

Zohra had been astonished the first time Jodhaa requested her presence in her private chambers. To be seen,much less acknowledged, made her heart leap into her throat. She was half convinced she was going to be accused of stealing and unceremoniously thrown out.
Reality,however,was far less dramatic. It seemed that the lady had taken a liking to this gentle girl,one of the few people in the haveli of her age. She had requested that Zohra be assigned to her service. And merely a formality though it may be, she asked Zohra if this would be acceptable to her. After an embarrassing amount of stuttering, Zohra managed to accept. And this was the beginning and end of everything.

Dear reader,take a moment to understand this unusual relationship. A relationship between two women living in vastly different worlds,a uniform appearance though the surface may be. One a victim of a harsh fate,condemned to a lifetime of servitude and loneliness,any prospect of marriage long eliminated by an ill-placed rumour when young. A vicious one at that. That was when she first hid her heart away from the world. Nothing stings like that first hurt,for before that you have not known such pain. You haven’t known that something so cruel exists. You know not your ability to heal and the strength within you. The Other woman,a fortuitous soul, was simply above. Above the populace. Her character untarnished. Her future as bright as the hundred glimmering lights of the chandeliers in her chambers.

Jodhaa often spoke to Zohra about her life. Usually by the candlelight on her vanity unit,as she sat on the richly embroidered red and gold pouffe as Zohra gently brushed away the tangles from her hair. Sometimes she spoke of what she’d learnt that day. A new shloka or perhaps a new raag. Sometimes she spoke of her dreams,her family. But they were not friends,these two. They may confide in each other and speak by the slowly wasting candle’s flickering yellow flame but there was always an underlying acceptance of who they were. And of the line that separated them. But they made the best of the situation and hoped it would be enough.

The other servant girls were jealous of this special bond that no one else quite understood, and were loathe to accept Zohra as one of their own. Despising someone even slightly better off than you were is a human trait as a tale as old as time. Hence she was surprised when Rukmini sought her out after dinner during her first week in the Haveli. The girls were from the same village and in an new world,both craved a memoir of life that was past. They grew close quickly,and soon our heroine found herself trusting the dark-haired, sallow skinned girl who knew more about her than anyone else, for Jodhaa had never seen the life Zohra lived, and it felt a crime to darken her view of this world,which by no means rose-tinted or unrealistic, was still a whole lot brighter than it actually was. And so Jodhaa was a confidante of a suitable subject. Rukmini was her life line in their world. One she held onto dearly.

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The two lines at the top are from an urdu cover of Zombie by The Cranberries. Any other references you may find are all intellectual property of their respective authors. I am merely writing this story as I am a sentient being capable of cogitating and rationalizing.

Behind The Lattice: Part 2

Chapter 2:Meeting.

The household was filled with servants rushing to clean and prepare a guest room. No one expected the Sahib to bring a guest.

Zohra walked into the servant quarters and immediately had a heap of sheets thrust into her hands. ‘Hurry up,go make the bed and take that useless friend of yours,Rukmini with you.’ Begum snapped as soon as they entered. ‘Rukmini will sweep and mop,You will dust. Get out of here now.’

They hurried to do her bidding,conversing in hushed whispers. The servants knew everything,and the Sahib’s friend was no exception. He was to stay for a while,for business purposes,though what these might be was unclear. There was also some talk of a marriage of alliance with the Sahib’s beautiful daughter,Jodhaa. She was better off than most other eighteen year olds of her time for she could read,write and speak English. Her father insisted she learn,even under the disapproving glare of the tutor who taught her Sanskit and other subjects seemingly suited to her stature. But this was a far shot at best,the Englishman belonged to the obscure school of thought of marrying for Love.

Zohra,smirked sarcastically to herself at that. Marrying for love. Oh the luxuries the Rich could afford.

They entered the room and quickly began their assigned chores. A methodic rhythm to their work,done hundreds of times before. Soon,her mind began to wander. She composed stories in her head,like she always did. Stories of love,of happiness. Happy. She couldn’t remember the last time she was truly happy. It must have been before she entered the Haveli gates, a wide-eyed naive girl five years ago,at the tender age of thirteen. Forced into working because her daimaa was dead and no one really cared what happened to the girl whose world revolved around her. It was a stroke of good fortune that the Sahib had found her before any harm could befall. He was a kind man,the Sahib. He undertook the responsibility of an orphan, a girl no less, he ensured she had food,clothing and shelter. A shard of guilt pierced her heart as she wished he’d given her happiness instead. She chastised herself mentally, the Sahib had done so much for her,she mustn’t complain.

As she put the finishing touches on the bed,she heard the door open. She looked around the room but Rukmini was long gone. She knew that Zohra barely paid heed to anything when lost in her thoughts. She must have left.

The opening of a door,however, signified that someone superior might be present. It drew her attention immediately. Briefly she wondered what it must be like not to have such an ingrained sense of one’s place in the social hierarchy. But the entrance of Jodhaa and the firaang brought all thought to a halt.

“Zohar!” Jodhaa,exclaimed in flawless Hindi,”Inse milo. Yeh Greg Sahib hain. Tumhe inka khas khyal rakh na hoga.” Meet Greg. You must take special care of him.

Zohar simply smiled and mumbled a hasty agreement. She excused herself hastily,for fear of what she might say. or do. This Greg sahib must know some Indian customs by now and she had already embarrassed herself earlier on the parapet. Heaven knew what he thought of her unruly behaviour.
As she approached the door, Greg moved aside to let her pass.
“Nice to acually meet you, but I must say, you looked better with your hair open.”,he smirked,just as she passed him. She eyed him with confusion,sparing a fearful glance at Jodhaa,who now looked both intrigued and a little lost. Then she fled.
She didn’t stop until she’d reached the end of the corridor. He’d said something to her. She wished she understood what. If the look of Jodhaa’s face was anything to go by though, it was probably something he shouldn’t have.

Her feet carried her automatically back to the servant quarters,where she was soon busy with dinner preparations.
She sighed as she continued chopping vegetables for the evening meal.

Happy. She wondered what it felt like.

Behind the Lattice:Part 1.

She gasped,her hands flying to her mouth to muffle the sound. For she had been betrayed. Tears clouded her vision as she ran,her orange dupatta flying in the wind. What hurt more,she wondered, the betrayal of a friend or that of someone she could have loved forever? And she didn’t stop running until she reached the parapet where it all began…

Chapter 1: Sight.

Zohra wiped the sweat off her brow with her pale pink dupatta. She’d been working under the harsh sun since morning, rolling out papads and putting them to dry. It was noon now,but she didn’t dare ask Mahima Begum if she could have a break. Last time a servant girl spoke to Mahima Begum,head housekeeper of the Palace without being addressed first, Begum boxed her ears so hard,she still had a ringing sensation the next day.

The Sun climbed higher into the sky,and the work showed no sign of stopping. Sahib was coming back to the haveli today. For days together now,there had been a flurry of activity to make sure everything was perfect. The garden blooming,the entrance decorated with traditional torans of marigold flowers,the brass and silver polished until you could see your reflection in them.

‘Worked as a better mirror than the filthy bit of glass called a mirror in my pathetic excuse of a room’ thought Zohra bitterly to herself,even though she knew it was not for her to complain,without this job as a maid-servant in the Royal Household,she’d be left for dead,or worse, in the streets. The gundas on the street cared nothing for a woman’s honour. It had been drilled into her head by her daimaa since she was 10 years of age.

‘Yeh duniya zaalim hai,betiya, saar pe pallu odehe rahk na, unchi aawaz mein baat mat kar na,aur hamesha gundo aur firango se door rehna,unhe sirf ek cheez chahiye’,she always said. The world is cruel,keep your head covered with your pallu,don’t raise your voice,and always stay away from thugs and foreigners,they only want one thing. That was the extent of her education. Four simple statements.

The unfamiliar rumble of a car engine brought her out of her reverie. She watched,fascinated by the contraption,all sense of propriety forgotten just for a moment. The car pulled up to the large,elaborately carved doors of the Haveli. Even as the welcoming party stepped out to greet the Sahib with garlands and a puja thali,everyone simply stopped to gape at his company. The Sahib was not alone,there was a foreigner, a firang with him.

Zohra gasped,which turned into a cry of pain,as her friend and only companion,Rukmini,pulled her harshly by the arm and behind the lattice.
She pulled her pallu back over her head and glared at her.
“What were you doing?” , she hissed in Hindi.”Standing out there in the open for all to see,without a care for your self,head high,no pallu. Are you trying to get on Mahima Begum’s bad side?”

Zohra hurriedly realised her mistake,once again her curiosity had gotten the better of her. “But there’s a firang here! In the haveli! he seems to be Sahib’s friend.”

“And he very well might be,but it is still not for us to say anything.” Rukmini replied, for their Sahib was what many people considered a betrayer,because he fraternized with the foreigners and followed a seemingly radical school of thought. Of course this is not saying much,anything even slightly out of custom and orthodox religion was considered radical these days.

“Come along,now,Begum has called you.”
And they walked down the gleaming marble floor,our heroine lost in the thoughts of the foreigner with the green eyes. Eyes that she’d met for a split second before Rukmini pulled her away.

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A story of a simple girl living in the world far more cruel than she ever thought it could be. Set in a 1930’s Indian Royal Household,it’s a story of a girl who dared to do more than what her place in life dictated. Do let me know if you want any more details or translations.