I shan’t tell you her name, so let’s call her Mumtaz. When she was thirteen, her mother married a Sikh and she became Mamta. Her sister, three years older, clung to her Muslim name and remained Shayarana. There was a third girl I didn’t know that well because she ran away when the father died and her mother said ‘yes’ to this burly bearded man in a turban with two married daughters of his own. Mamta loved her new father, who was the second driver on our farm.
Naturally, the sisters came to work too. They were both beautiful and saw their loveliness in the eyes of the men. I was twenty-three and they would walk past me giggling and clearing their throats in imitation of me. This eves’ teasing was a very private interlude that no one else saw. Of the two, Shayarana’s glance lingered longer on my reddened face, and she worked harder than the rest like there was a special status I’d accorded her. Mamta was the clown.
Mamta stood in the doorway and said her mother had sent her over to see if there was any work for her. (Representative photo: Getty Images)
She stole mangoes knowing I watched and ran squealing if the orchard watchman yelled at her. I pretended not to notice. I didn’t acknowledge most of the mischief she created for my benefit only. She lagged behind others and you found her lips deliberately smeared in mulberries, obviously shaken from the lone tree. She walked like a drunkard in my line of vision. She started carrying a kerchief like I did and blew her nose delicately as a lady would and ran away cackling at my perplexed expression. I had seen her hanging on the branch of a tree like a corpse with her eyes wide and tongue hanging out. She even drove the tractor into a ditch. She cared little that I was the master and she had no business messing with me.
Holi came once a year and I detested the day. I left for the farm in the dark with provisions that included two litres of orange juice and a kilo of chicken. Each year I would cook and enjoy the feast on my own. Nobody came to work, making it the most special occasion for me. The condiments for my dish were freshly ground on a flat stone with another smaller flat stone. The paste stuck to the meat as it slow-cooked. Its aroma rode the breeze and, I imagined, made mouths water in the village. The orange juice seemed no less than the rarest wine. Not a word ever disturbed the peace, except that afternoon.
Mamta stood in the doorway and said her mother had sent her over to see if there was any work for her since Holi in the village was a boisterous affair and she wanted none of it. She even chewed her inner cheek while she told me all this, once again making fun of me in that quiet intimate way of hers. She was fifteen now and held my gaze like her sister — married and gone — had done. I stared blankly before me trying to gather my wits, and at last, told her to carry bhusa from one shed to the other. That would occupy her for the day.
Around five, after my chicken and rice, I wandered down to check on her, stomping my feet to warn her I was coming in case she was asleep on the job. She was there hauling away high up on a yellow mountain of bhusa from last year. She had been working. I smiled, she didn’t. And then something extraordinary happened. The young woman pulled down her blouse and exposed her breasts.
My heart was breaking to bits for the mad village girl who listened only to her heart. (Representative photo: Reuters)
The shock socked me in the gut. The shed swam left to right. I shut my eyes. There was no one on the farm. I wanted to escape and I wanted to stay. I knew full well I had to run, but I didn’t know how to. It was my turn to pretend I’d noticed nothing. Without a word, I left the darkness. My heart was breaking to bits for the mad village girl who listened only to her heart.
In six months I heard she had run off with a boy, the son of a contractor. A Muslim boy. His family didn’t want her like she was a sparrow that had fallen out of the nest and been returned. She was the daughter of a Sikh now. Her own heartbroken stepfather didn’t want her anymore. She was married when they found she was pregnant. She was only fifteen.
Mamta and her baby died at childbirth. And all I can do is tell her story without giving away her real name.