Lakkhmi Brahmani was grinding garlic and onion into paste on a stone, and singing to herself.
I knew I had to fly a great distance
So I chose him as my mate
If now I learn he is not up to the challenge
I will never gift him my body again.
Shahni got gooseflesh just listening to her. Such anguish in her voice! Shahni went and put a hand on Lakkhmi’s shoulder. “Hain ri, foolish Lakkhmiye, those dark clouds still hover over your heart!”
Lakkhmi wiped her eyes and buried her head in her knees. “What do I do, Shahni? I walked off the dunes and into the well! I have no control over this ill-behaved heart.”
“Kyon ri, did you meet him again?”
Her palm spread flat on the stone, Lakkhmi didn’t say yes or no. “What should this passionate one do, Shahni? That son of Syed, god knows what magic he possesses that he has this hold over me. A thousand times I restrain myself, but he doesn’t let go of this heart and body. Just doesn’t let go.” Tears rolled down her eyes.
Shahni sat down near her and said in a low voice, “Hain ri, you daughter of Brahmins, how ever did you meet him? Did you not consider your religion even once?”
“The karma of this luckless one, Shahni! Last year I had gone to my grandparents at Naushehra. That was it, the Syedzada gave me such a look, it pierced my heart and being.”
Hearing Chachi’s footsteps, Shahni said aloud, “I say, Lakkhmi, finish your work fast and come down. We have to air the stores in the basement.”
Chachi Mehri came closer, cast a sharp look at Lakkhmi and scolded, “This lovesick one doesn’t stop singing her woes. Have patience. It’s not necessary that the fire of your affair should burn bright day and night!”
Lakkhmi ground the coriander and cumin in silence. Then setting the grinding stone aside, she washed her hands, wiped them and asked Shahni, “Shall I go open the doors and windows below?”
“Yes, I will come with you.”
They went down to the stores, and the fresh scent of wheat and millet got to Lakkhmi so that the tears spilled out afresh. Shahni let her be for a time, then lovingly said, “Phitte moonh ri, got rid of your trouble just yesterday. And the sin of that foul deed, too, is upon our heads only. Why did you make us go to such lengths? You could have gone and camped in the Syeds’ backyard, given birth to the bastard!”
“Shame, fear of disgrace, fear of what people might say, what else? Rabb is my witness, Shahni, he never forced himself on me, nor forced me to do anything. If you want the truth, he didn’t back out from his promise either. When I wept and told him everything, he said, ‘You have my word, Lakkhmiye. Agree to what I say, and I will bring you home from the front door.’”
“Shame on you, ri! You, a daughter of Brahmins, lost your heart, that too to a caste-less Mleccha. And you go calling him a son of Syeds! A weaver one year; a Sheikh the second, and if he makes a profit, a Syed. Leave him, pluck him out from your heart! He is beyond your caste, beyond your faith; he is nothing to you.”
Lakkhmi stretched a hand and lifted the heavy sack of millet as if it was just a five-kilo packet. She put it against the wall and fell at Shahni’s feet. “What do I do? Tell this luckless, witless one what to do. My woes have no face to show this world. How do I tell them that I won’t live without him?”
“Come to your senses! Have you gone mad? Ari, know this for certain: no Brahmin woman ever had a namazi Syed for a husband, nor will she ever be permitted to have one.”
Lakkhmi began to pull at her hair and beat her head. “I know, I know. I tell my heart a million times, but it doesn’t listen. Shahni, that life got cut from my body, a sin was committed in vain, and here I still burn the same. I won’t survive this upheaval, Shahni, I will die!”
“Hai-hai, Kalyug has indeed arrived! You made love to one of another religion, and now you have lost your senses. Just think, Lakkhmi. What will you cook and what will you eat in his kitchen? Ari, you are Brahmin by birth, and you let a Mlechha taste you!”
Lakkhmi’s pale, thin face flushed. Her breasts trembled beneath her kurta. “Forgiveness, Shahni! My cruel stars, what else! Even when I think of him, floods threaten to overtake this low soil. I will die, I will die without him!”
“Enough is enough, you dare repeat this again! Throw out that irreligious Yavan from your heart. Throw out his memories and bury his effigy in the grave.”
Lakkhmi covered her ears. “May the gods and goddesses forgive my sin. As heavens are my witness, he and he alone is my mate in body and soul!”
Shahni’s voice abruptly grew cold. “Ari, you pure daughter of the Brahmins, you are playing a deadly game. You will die. Your brothers will cut you into pieces. You won’t survive ...”
Lakkhmi stood staring at Shahni with the glazed eyes of a cornered animal.
Shahni shook her by the shoulders. “Listen to me carefully. You conceived, Chachi helped you out – only for the sake of your caste-clan that is descended from Baba Bhrigunath himself, lord of the high noon. Now whether you cast your religion aside, become a Bhattani, Sheikhni or a Kanjari, whether you bow or salaam, we don’t care!”
As Lakkhmi stared back at her defiantly, Shahni left and bolted the door from outside.
That night, Lakkhmi lay down on sacks of grain in the Shahs’ storeroom. Upstairs, there were consultations till late in Shahji’s baithak. Past midnight, when Lakkhmi’s brother Parasram returned from Kotli Loharan, a servant brought him straight to the Shahs’ haveli.
Shahni rubbed her palms in regret. “This dharm-pitti has lost her sense and balance. Chachi, her brothers will not let her live.”
“Her fate, child, what else! These upheavals of life and body, whenever they come, bring bad news. Haven’t you heard, love and looking back pierce your heart again and again.”
“A million shames on this girl! The Syed son is only a man after all. If the heart says here, then here. If the heart says there, then there.”
“This is not the first spillover in her family. Her cursed aunt, her mother’s own sister, left her home and family. If this hunger enters a house once, these thirsts and desires are unquenched generation after generation. Only the river can quench this ‘auspicious-faced’ one now.”
Chachi Mehri was deep in thought. Who knows how far and wide her thoughts travelled. She opened her eyes after a little doze and said, “Bachchi, if one sees it this way, then the Sheikhs of Naushehra are not the true Syeds of Persia. They must have converted to Islam only a hundred–two hundred years ago. Before that, they must have been Brahmins only, this way or that!”
Shahni was shell-shocked. “Chachi, are you talking in your sleep? Once lost, religion is lost forever. Will the Syeds have the Hindu Prajapati gotra stuck to their names even after one or two hundred years? This is sheer blasphemy! Chachi, just think ...”
“What do I think, my child! Thinking is what made this old woman lose her good sense. I only got that packet from that bitch Jamalo so that this Brahmin woman could retain her good name. You tell me, who committed the sin? I only, na? I feel guilty. I am the murderess. This damned one keeps fanning her thirst and desire, and I have to shoulder the blame and the guilt!”
Excerpted with permission from Zindaginama, Krishna Sobti, translated from the Hindi by Neer Kanwal Mani with Moyna Mazumdar, HarperCollins India.