‘With a bit of luck, she would be happy’
‘I told you,’ Asha said to the retainer. ‘I said I knew Om-ji.’
Om had left her in the hallway of his house, beyond the echoing clamour of the crowd. ‘I’ll get Ma,’ he had nervously said to her. ‘I want her to meet you.’
It was over, her dream, her childhood. She had to forget about Firoze. She had to smile at Om now, and to let her dupatta slip.
‘I’ll just be back,’ he had said, smiling his toothy smile, and she had nodded.
‘Yes,’ she had replied. ‘Yes, take your time.’
‘Well,’ the retainer said uncertainly. He indicated the divan in the hall. He surveyed her unhurriedly, and she grew conscious of how long it had been since she had last bathed. Of how long it had been since she had last seen her mother-of-pearl brush, of how long it had been since she had last eaten. The retainer bowed his head, staring at her mud-splattered slippers, and she found herself muttering about the rain in Punjab. ‘If you say so,’ huffed the man. He indicated the divan again, but as Asha moved towards it, he winced. ‘The upholstery is new. Maybe I’ll fetch you a cloth to sit on.’
So Asha perched on a kitchen cloth in Om’s house. ‘I’m just waiting,’ she said with more confidence than she felt. ‘I’m going to meet Om-ji’s mother.’ Her hand rose as she spoke, and she nearly knocked a priceless vase off its perch. The man rushed forward to protect the precious heirloom. ‘You’re sure,’ he glared at her, ‘you’re sure you’re to wait indoors?’
‘Yes,’ Asha replied meekly, and the man sighed. He picked up the vase, moved it to a table away from her and marched wordlessly off inside the house.
Even where she sat, in the dimly lit hall, she saw signs of careless prosperity. There was the tall screen inlaid with semi-precious stones, there were the twin elephant tusks that guarded the door to the principal rooms. An enormous brass chandelier hung low; an ancient, faded carpet lined one of the walls. And in the distance, the table with its precious vase.
‘Partition,’ Asha observed, ‘has been good to this family.’
She rose, fingered the soft velvet of the carpet, and moved towards the vase. It called to her like the inspector’s contraband and she slowly reached a hand out to touch it. Then she heard a noise, a rustle of a sari, and she hurried back to her seat.
A woman entered. This appeared to be Om’s mother, and the girl rose. She put her hands together and muttered her greetings. The woman nodded. ‘You belong to the Prakash family?’
The woman shuffled slowly forward, staring hard. ‘You’re Shiela’s daughter?’
‘Yes,’ said Asha. She saw the woman cast a critical eye over her clothes, and she knew the old sepoy retainer had been describing her. ‘That scamp,’ she thought, but she took care to appear pleasant. ‘I’ve been travelling,’ she explained. ‘I’ve just come in from Pakistan.’
There was no response. ‘My parents,’ began Asha.
‘They didn’t make it,’ said the woman simply.
The woman nodded. She stared at her newly upholstered divan with some concern, and Asha steeled herself to say, ‘Om ji had been given some jewellery by my mother for safekeeping, and so I came…’
‘Oh,’ said the woman with a hard smile. ‘Is that right?’
‘Yes,’ said Asha firmly, but as the woman continued her scrutiny, she felt herself colour.
‘Of course,’ the woman finally said. ‘Of course.’
She shuffled off without another word, and Asha sat miserably down. There was no mention of Om. ‘Horrible woman,’ she fumed. There was to be no marriage, the old witch would make sure of that. She would find the milk-skinned beauty, force her on her son, just as something similar would soon be done in Suhanpur. The almond-eyed Lahori would be brought into the house overlooking the uprooted banyan tree, and another woman’s children would play on her cricket pitch.
Asha set her jaw. Om’s image flashed in her mind, a broad nose over an endless, smiling mouth. ‘No,’ she thought firmly. ‘No, I don’t accept.’
She heard raised voices in the next room. ‘Beta,’ she heard the woman plead. ‘Son, listen to me. You can have your pick now. Why settle for her?’
‘Ma,’ said a soft, patient voice. ‘I like her. I’d even asked for her hand in Suhanpur.’
‘But Beta,’ said his mother. ‘Things were different then. Her father was a respected lawyer. She would have brought a decent dowry. And you hadn’t risen as much as you have over the past few months.’ Om’s mother began cajoling now, ‘How well my son has done. You have blossomed in the midst of all this devastation.’ There was silence for a moment, then she began again. ‘What is she worth now? Nothing.’
Asha’s heart sank. He would let her go.
Om spoke softly, and Asha strained to listen. ‘…have enough…’
‘And she’s nothing to look at.’
‘She has nothing, Beta.’
She couldn’t hear his reply, but knew Om’s mother was thinking of the lines of eager girls who waited outside.
‘Her nose isn’t straight …’
‘So am I,’ replied an exasperated Om.
‘Chup,’ scolded Ma. ‘You’re my prince.’
His next words escaped Asha. She stood no chance.
‘She has a nice smile, I suppose,’ said Ma reluctantly.
‘I like her,’ said Om plainly, audibly, and Asha’s heart lifted. ‘I like her smile.’
‘Her smile,’ sniffed his mother. ‘Her smile? You could have any girl in Delhi, and you choose a common orphan because of her smile?’ Asha shifted in her seat. The cloth moved under her, and she heard Ma speak again, but she couldn’t stop smiling. She brought her hand up to her mouth and touched the corners of her lips. He liked her smile. ‘Friendship,’ she thought. ‘Kindness, a bit of luck.’
She heard Om rise. A chair was scraped back, she heard footsteps move deeper into the house. She didn’t hear him speak again, but Ma’s voice rose loud in complaint for a long while afterwards. Her drawbacks were listed again, as if Ma was evaluating a vegetable for the evening meal. ‘I wouldn’t mind, Mahesh,’ she said, ‘but she looks so common.’
Mahesh, whom Asha recognised as the retainer, provided a ready echo to all of Ma’s concerns. ‘Yes, Maji,’ she heard. ‘So common,’ but Asha’s hand remained by her smile.
She was in Delhi. She would be safe, and with a bit of luck, she would be happy.
Radhika Swarup spent a nomadic childhood in India, Italy, Qatar, Pakistan, Romania and England, which gave her a keen sense for the dispossessed. She studied at Cambridge University and worked in investment banking before turning to writing. She has written opinion pieces for Indian broadsheets and the Huffington Post as well as short stories for publications including the Edinburgh Review.