Those days, large and small processions would often flow into the city streets. As soon as the sound of a crowd became audible, every window in the bazaar would sprout a number of heads, all intent on enjoying the excitement and spectacle of the procession. Women and children would jump out of their quilts and rush to the windows to see splendidly dressed bridegrooms riding on horses in the middle of evening, with everything around them lit up with gas lanterns, mirrored glass bowls with candles and the fountains of light that lit up the night sky as reworks shot into it and exploded. Lalli dashed to the windows even before Katya-Didda, drawn by the music of the bands and the shehnai players and by the desire to see the bridegroom’s covered face.
On Janamashtami and Ramnavmi arches made of colourful Benarasi sarees were put in place to welcome the procession of the gods. Radha, Krishna, the baby Krishna, Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshman, with Hanuman sitting at their feet, were carried past in open carriages, tongas and palanquins decorated with rainbow coloured red and blue brocade sarees. Hymns filled the air while baby Krishna, covered with flowers, adorned with a shining crown of leaves, with his flute at his lips, gently swayed as he sat in his flower covered swing.
The women, children and old men with rickety knees, who were watching from the windows, would hail the procession and shower so many flowers on it that Shri Krishna’s face was completely covered by the time the journey was done.
But the most impressive procession was the Maharaja’s river pageant. Large boats were moored along the river and decorated with arches. The Maharaja leaned against velvet pillows and bolsters in the royal boat Chakvari, which was freshly painted for the occasion. Accompanied by his advisors, soldiers and ministers he would travel from Shalteng to Shergarhi. There were soldiers in the first motorboat, which was followed by the royal regatta. The seven bridges of the city resounded with shouts of “long live the Maharaja” and showers of petals rained down on him from the windows of homes along the river. Some petals would fall on the riverbank, others would be carried by the waves of the Vitasta to the Maharaja’s boat. With folded hands he would acknowledge the greetings of the people.
The Moharram procession was completely different. Hordes of people would walk alongside the tazias, beating their breasts, crying, shouting “Hussain, Hussain, maula Hussain, aka Hussain”. The palanquin bearers would carry the large decorated tazia. Walking ahead of it, a man carrying a stick with a silver handle would begin a stanza of a marsiya, an elegy, and two men on either side of him would take up the lament. Some people would express their grief by hitting themselves with chains and daggers, the richer ones would show their grief by beating their chests with handkerchiefs. Rehman, the tongawallah behaved like a crazed man, he would bloody his chest and back, hitting himself with hunters and chains. Women would make their children pass under the tazia and ask for boons. Others would watch from the windows with tears in their eyes.
In this grief-filled atmosphere all mothers, Hindu or Muslim felt the pain of loss in their hearts. After all, they said, sons are born from the wombs of their mothers.
Katya and Didda also accompanied Arshi dai to the Imambara once to see the Moharram majlis. Arshi would start preparing for mourning the minute she sighted the Moharram moon. The house would be in mourning for a full forty days. In gatherings, Rehman’s wife Zeba would sing the “nauhe” in memory of Hussain sahib in a voice filled with sorrow and all the women listening would burst into tears.
Troublemakers would also take out processions. There were passionate slogans and sometimes fisticuffs and exchanges of vulgar language between two groups. At times people even went to the extent of hurling kangris at each other. There were frequent confrontations between the lion and the goat parties. Apart from the shouts of “Nalaye takbir, allaho akbar,” resounding shouts of “murdabad” and “zindabad” spread fear and panic. Often there was a police lathi-charge. On such occasions people just locked themselves up in their homes.
It was an occasion like this when there was procession of troublemakers, which became memorable for Katya. That was the day when, without any warning, she suddenly grew up, and in a very awkward way. When she went to sleep at night she was just a playful child, when she awoke she had become an adult. Like Rip van Winkle, it was as though an age had passed between the time she had gone to sleep and to the time she woke in the morning.
Katya didn’t know anything. Standing against the window she suddenly felt a warm wetness sliding down her legs. If she hadn’t felt a terrible ache in her lower abdomen she wouldn’t have noticed the red stains on her white salwar. When she noticed them her heart jumped with fear. Oh! What was this? Shoving Ragya and Sharika aside she rushed to the bathroom. When she saw the red lines on her legs she began to cry loudly. With trembling legs and a piercing ache in her back she just rolled herself into a ball on the floor. But Didda did not leave her alone, she realised something was up and followed Katya. She checked her out and, very conscious of her own status as an elder sister, she instructed Katya on the use of cotton and cloth. She also passed on warnings and directions. “This is something extremely private and has to be kept hidden, not only from men, but even from other women in the family. No one should know that you have MC.”
“MC?” Katya felt a helpless fear.
“You don’t even know this?” Didda frowned. “You’ve grown as tall as a palm tree but don’t know what is a monthly curse?”
Every month after twenty eight days, this red colour and this pain will remind you that you are a woman now, not a carefree girl. Now you can’t hang about giggling with boys, otherwise you can get into trouble and then you will have to slash your wrists with a blade.”
“Why, why would I cut my wrist with a blade?” Katya asked, wiping her nose.
“Questions again! Try to use your brain! Didn’t Kakni tell you the story of that Kamala, who cut her wrist with a blade? If they hadn’t taken her to hospital immediately, she would have died.”
“But why did she cut her wrist?” Katya will not keep quiet till she knows everything!
“Oh! You are really stupid. God knows how you pass your exams. She was pregnant. She used to spend too much time enjoying herself with that ruffian, Moti...”
Katya, listening to her Didda with curiosity and worry, nevertheless felt a sense of wonder at how one could become pregnant by laughing with boys.
There were a lot of questions. Didda would provide some answers at least and Katya had to acknowledge her superior intelligence. Katya didn’t know anything, not even the meaning of MC.
Katya tried to remember the instructions about secrecy but she couldn’t hide anything for long. Exactly twenty eight days later (Didda’s calculations were correct) her body was wracked with pain and she threw up everything so that even the children in the house realised there was something wrong. When Lalli saw her tomboyish daughter writhing in pain she put a hot water bottle under her legs and gave her a tablet of Baralgan with some kehwa. Wiping the sweat from Katya’s forehead she hugged her close. Katya saw the sheen of tears in her mother’s eyes and heard her murmuring brokenly. “Oh! The life of a woman.”
Excerpted with permission from The Saga of Satisar, Chandrakanta, translated by Ranjana Kaul, Zubaan Books.