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Love's Garden, a novel

Love’s Garden, a novel

Chapter 1: Saroj-

In the year 1898, in a corner of Britain’s far-flung empire where the imperial sun is still rampant, a train snakes through a vast plain checkered by bronze, green and ochre fields of wheat, corn and millet. A woman stumbles through the train, passing compartments, peering into some, trying to reach the engine at the front. Her name is Saroj and she wants to stop the train. Stop the train. Get off.
How can this be happening? Why hasn’t Munia come? She promised she would come, without fail. Munia knows the stakes. She swore on her honor and her love.

People are sleeping — seated, slumped, stretched out — some with their entire bodies and heads covered with makeshift sheets, others in ugly positions that bring no shame only to the utterly oblivious. The train is completely dark. Here and there Saroj hears a moan, a whimper, even a low droning. Is that an infant crying, though? Saroj freezes for a long second. No, it’s a little girl who has fallen off a bunk. She is lying sprawled on the dirty floor, sobbing, as if getting up without her mother’s remorseful help is out of the question. Saroj can’t wait, can’t stop, can’t step into the compartment and help her up. No time to lose. Saroj lurches on, forward. The engine shrieks — again and again — as it shreds the night. Saroj begins to think she will not be able to reach that engine compartment where the driver and the stoker are busy urging on the machine like a trained beast. Her legs are giving way. The spirit billows out of her, like smoke from an extinguished fire. All is burning. All has burned.

She should have burned too. It was her fate. But she erred. She sinned. Had she sinned? Had she erred? The old agony of that dilemma stops her as if someone has just punched her in the gut. She doesn’t even try to break her fall to the floor.

On the gritty floor of the snaking train taking her away from everything she has ever known or loved, Saroj dies that night, inside.

In Patna, Bihar-Bengal Province, a man called Manohar Mishra who has promised to marry her is shocked and distressed to see her being supported out of the train by two or three other passengers. There’s a deep gash on her forehead where she says her fall broke when she slipped in the sewage-slicked train bathroom. She looks at her husband-to-be but can’t see him. Just a blur. Because another face glows before her eyes.

When she is a little recovered with cool water and a shard of bread, she steps into the tonga Manohar Mishra has brought for her, adorned with flowers and bells. They go to his house, many miles in the interior, set deep within leagues of cracked fields and dry gullies. Here she will find love, indeed she will, even if it is her new husband’s not-good-enough love. Her new husband is forty-ish, round, and docile. Practically old enough to be her father. She will throw away that love.

It isn’t as if she says all this to herself. But because she can see so clearly into the future and sees herself doing all these things, they will all happen.

Saroj reaches her new husband’s Bihari-Bengali home when she’s only twenty. At first she tries to put her mind to her duties as a wife. There are accounts to check, cattle to count, fields to visit, crops and harvest to oversee, servants to scold, kitchen to supervise — this in part is the reason why her childless, widower husband has remarried — and a guileless, elderly boy-man to take care of. Only when she stands at night at her bedroom window — fog rolling and parting over the fields stretching before her — she feels the weight of the boulders crushing her back and her chest, threatening to pull her down under waters of oblivion. A face swims before her eyes, brighter in the dark.

Yes, she left voluntarily. But the empty place inside her doesn’t know that.

One day she asks her husband if he can send someone back to her old village to look for a woman called Munia. He asks why, and she says she’d promised to take her with her when she left. Munia was her personal maid. Somehow they got separated during the flight and the night train journey to her new home.

Manohar Mishra does try. He’s a good man and a good husband. He wants to please his pretty young wife, see a smile on her pale, withdrawn face. One night he tells her in how many ways he’s tried. “I’m more than willing to spend money, if I only knew where to look. I sent three people to your village. They couldn’t find out anything. Some people said there used to be a young maidservant called Munia there, but she’s gone, they say. She just vanished one day, they say…. Right after you left. Some people even say she may be dead. I’ll keep looking but….”

Saroj listens quietly, her eyes on the floor at her husband’s feet.

Dead or alive, Munia, may you burn in hell. Burn, Munia. Burn in hell.

That’s all that’s left now. All is burning. All is afire. Saroj burns. In eternal hellfire herself. Can she tell anyone what she’s lost with Munia? Can she? Like lightning, the thought — almost injunction, almost temptation — flashes in her head: Tell him. Tell him what you were going to reveal later, begging for kindness, had Munia come. Can she confess to her husband? Can she ask him to look again, to send men to ask where and how and if Munia died?

No. This man has done enough This man has done more than enough — more than most men would do.

And Saroj? She has done an unspeakable thing.

Then, like a thunderbolt, a girl is born to her. She’s twenty-one. In the two years of marriage to Manohar Mishra she has used every available ayurvedic, folk, homeopathic and hearsay contraceptive, as well as douched and scraped herself raw, after every visit from her husband. But it seems there will be no forgiveness for her.

Chapter 2: 1915-

Fifteen years pass. That’s a long time. Saroj doesn’t quite know how they passed. She spent most of the time building a fortress around herself.

Prem, daughter of Saroj and Manohar Mishra, is now nearly fifteen, the same age as this new century. Some time ago Manohar Mishra began entertaining proposals for Prem from Delhi, from Ajmer, from Allahabad, from Kolikata. His wife’s growing remoteness troubles him. He worries for his daughter. She’s uncharacteristically withdrawn and weary of late. She doesn’t leave her room much. He’s asked her what has made her lose her appetite, her glowing fair skin paling into an unhealthy sere. Why are there shadows under her eyes? Why doesn’t she tease him, pleasantly torture him, anymore? He asks her where she would most like to live as a married woman. His daughter says, “Doesn’t matter.”
Saroj simply looks blankly at Manohar Mishra when he brings this up. When asked about Prem’s marriage she says, colorlessly, “Whatever you think best.”

Saroj has always seemed strange to the people in this village and her own household, and remains a stranger. Do people tell tall, fantastic tales about her? Do people merely imagine things? Old nurse Shyampiyari, the crone who has raised Prem and given Prem all the mother love the girl ever knew, always says snappishly, “No, they don’t.” Prem grew up hearing this. A small, puzzled Prem would cock her head to look into Shyampiyari’s bleary eyes. Shyampiyari (like the crafty harridan of old epics) would tell Prem tales that modern folk say children shouldn’t hear. About demons and giant monkeys and whole islands burning, and great sea monsters rising, holding the world on their crowns and horns. About women who were really witches and demons and married good men and fed off their blood — and even their own children’s with these poor men — at night. Strange women. Shameless women who’d stop at nothing. From strange, uncharted places. Such things happen all the time, she’d grunt; not at all tall tales, not at all.

Without this Shyampiyari, whom she calls Dhai, Prem would likely have died in babyhood. Her mother couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t give her the breast. Seemingly she had no milk. An unnatural calamity. It was Shyampiyari — retainer from the time of the dead first wife of Manohar Mishra — who carefully received, boiled, skinned, strained and spooned cow’s milk into Prem’s distended, bawling mouth. It was she who wiped up the green muck the baby expelled for the first week from drinking cow’s and not mother’s milk, crying desperately and incessantly all night, her little face blue, her tiny fists clenched. Faded memories of the burrowing of men and children into her own body setting withered dugs and folds of her skin zinging one last time, Shyampiyari cuddled and nursed the baby girl whose mother couldn’t nurse or even hold her. Yes, Prem would certainly have died in babyhood without Shyampiyari. When Prem was older, it was still Shyampiyari who babied her, put her to bed, did her hair, sang her to sleep in the croak that Prem knew as love crooning.

No one understands it, but Saroj avoids her daughter at best and looks at her when forced as if the girl is a speck very, very far away. Shyampiyari has never understood a woman like that calling herself a mother. Shyampiyari has never forgiven Saroj and never will. In Prem’s head, for as long as she can remember, Shyampiyari, grinding sweet paan in her jaws to the rhythm of combing Prem’s hair, has been saying, “If only your Mai-ji (as Prem calls her mother) would behave like any good, respectful, man-fearing woman, Bitiya (baby girl)!” Her voice has always quavered with unbridled anger when talking about Saroj.

Manohar Mishra worries a lot that at Prem’s age her mother’s always strange indifference — neglect, even — torments Prem beyond endurance. She is turning into a woman, his little girl. For her mother, this is apparently of no special import. He’s had to arrange the marriage himself.

So Prem is about to be married. Her husband-to-be is Brown Baron Rai Bahadur Sir Naren Mitter. He is the sort of Indian gentleman the British once derided as an effete “Babu” — an Indian fop and rake — who now harrumphs as mandarin of the British Maibap. Maibap means Mother and Father in Hindi, and what else are the British to their Indian subjects? And knighthood is something the British Maibap bestow only on their most loyal Indian subjects. This is how Narendranath Mittir has become Sir Mitter and Rai Bahadur, or Brave Lord.

Sir Naren Mitter has made a fortune in military and food supplies during this Great War that’s going on. How much exactly, who can say. But those who claim to know say that in this war a sixth of the British forces are Indian men. Hapless fathers, husbands, sons and brothers from bleary villages. Of them, they say, at least thirty thousand have already died fighting, and another thirty thousand have returned home maimed, penniless and without a future. Thousands are missing. No one will look for them. Sir Naren supplies jute, cement, iron, steel, ammunition, garments and provisions to the British war effort in India. They say he makes a thousand rupees a day. That’s a lot of money. Like the fifty million British pounds that Indians have already paid in taxes to save civilization from the Hun. Even four-legged Indians are going to war for England. All hundred thousand of those patriotic cattle need provisions, so grain and supplies have had to be diverted to them from starving villagers by enterprising men, brave lords, like Sir Naren.