The fire danced in the desert wind. Loo, the locals called it. The warm air was pleasant, but not for her, not with the amount of jewelry she was wearing. Her lehenga, her choli, her ghoonghat, her nathani, her jhumka and her mehendi were telling the guests a beautiful story of happiness but her sweat and tears were her own to feel. Her wedding was an hour away, and she was kept at the center of the Sabha like a show piece. 16 year old Hetal was all set to marry the rich business man from the neighboring town.
Scores of villagers were walking past her, giving her money and small gifts that befit their stature. She had never seen so many coins for her in her life. And yet, her mind did not want to count the money in front of her. Her heart yearned to see the one boy she had ever dared to look in the eye, had ever dared to hold hands with. She knew Chandan would be coming to the opening in her backyard anytime now, and she would be ready when he did.
Bikramjeet and his wife Peenal were beaming with joy, looking at their daughter sitting coyly, waiting for the wedding. Glory, they called it. A good name to the family, water to their parched bajra fields and money to send their young Dilawar to school. Peenal walked to her daughter, wiped the sweat off her forehead with her hands, and planted a kiss on it. Hetal tried to pull away. ‘Eh Bawali!’ Peenal murmured as she quietly pulled Hetal’s ghoonghat over to cover her face, lest anyone see the bruises. It hurt her that her child had to be beaten up so harsh, but her husband was right. Daughters have no business studying or falling in love. She wondered what happened to the 18 year old boy and just hoped he hadn’t got killed. Her husband was known for tempers.
There was commotion outside the Sabha, and Bikram straightened up. ‘Baraat aa gayo, Laado ko andar le ja’ he boomed with energy as told his wife. Peenal and the other maidens helped Hetal in her heavy lehenga and walked her into the house, into the bride’s room, and came back to welcome the party.
The candle flickered in the desert wind. Dragon’s breath, Chandan called it. Hetal hoped he came sooner. She removed the gold and rubies she wore. She wanted no part of it. Her father’s hard earned money is something her father should use, not her. She had never stepped out of the house without telling her mother, but she was convinced that this was her becoming a woman. She quickly removed the small bundle of some money, clothes and bangles she had packed that morning. She picked up the silver statue of Krishna her grandmother gifted her when she was 8 and headed for the door. Ensuring nobody was at the main house amidst the commotion, she left for the backyard.
Chandan said he would wait there with his friend’s bike. There was no bike. There was no him. Where had he gone? She would be doomed if she were to walk back into the house now! She would be doomed if she were to walk away from her house without him! She felt all alone. Was her father right? Was he a beherupiya?
Little did she know that the boy she loved, the boy she wanted to grow up for was lying in the bottom of the unused well of her village, the same well they would meet by when the sun began to set. He was beaten and crushed to the point of no recognition. Little did she know that his last moments were spent crying, not because of the pain he bore but for her fate and what may lie ahead for her. He wanted to wait for her in the peechewali gali and whisk her away to the world he would build for her. And even at this hour, when his life was merely hanging on to him, he wanted to do it. To not live longer, but make his life matter, for her. He breathed out one last time, thinking of her beautiful hair and her deep watery eyes.
Hetal cried. Cried more bitterly than when she did as her father hit her with his stick. She never thought that as disrespect, she just took that as her fate. But this betrayal? She cried because she felt disrespected, because she had allowed it and it was not fate. With a deep breath, she made her decision. If she could make a boy make her feel so grown up and strong, she would make the woman in her make her unstoppable. She took the heaviest step forward, dismissing her fate and allowing her action to take charge. She walked, she jogged and then she finally ran towards the muddy road that lead to the town. Feeling the wind around her, she ran into the desert night with the ghosts of her past.