The Dismissal of Happily Ever After. Prologue.

She closed the blue book, rubbed her tired eyes with ink stained fingers and blinked sleepily at the clock.
2.03am
She sighed, falling back onto her bed, her dark hair spread out on the pale pink sheets beneath her.
‘Another sleepless night’  She hated nights like these, when the thoughts would simply not be silenced. When the ‘what ifs’ of life were playing like a bad movie in her head. When you questioned everything you ever believed.
About life.
About humanity.
About yourself.

For you see, dear reader, our heroine was plagued not by a disease, or a hardship.
Her problem was far more common.
Disease can be cured.
Hardship dealt with.

But what do you do when you’re awake in the middle of the night feeling like a shadow, like you’d melt away at the slightest light?
Waiting for something,anything, to make you feel better?

We all stuggle.
With life.
With love.
With humanity.
With ourselves.
So I suppose she was, just like you and I.
This is the story of a girl who learnt to love herself, for all the days someone else wouldn’t.

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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.

~~*~~
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.

–*–
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.