“Savitri”, called out a loud but tender voice from downstairs.
It was a beautiful morning in the month of August. The sky was cloudy and it was drizzling when the call for her name woke her up.
“Uh, subah subah utha diya.” complained a young 23-years old Savitri. As beautiful as the cloudy sky, her tousled black hair covered the sheet. They were so long that sometimes when she walked, her hair would get in her way.
“At least wash them or comb them, Savitri. Kya hai ye sab.” Baisa, as every girl in the haveli called her, would chide her every day. “Paanch saal ho gaye hai, Savitri. Ab toh sringaar kar le.” she had been reminding her for months now.
“Why do you keep saying that? Tell her to stop reminding me of the same things, Rupali. It is starting to get on my nerves now.” Savitri would reply.
This morning, the rain and soft fragrance of petrichor seemed to have freshened Savitri. A kulhar of masala chai was already waiting for her on the bedside table when she finally opened her eyes. Grey coloured, the eyes were so beautiful that Baisa would never let her leave the haveli without a kala teeka. With flawless olive skin and thin lips, Savitri’s beauty was talked about even across the street.
She was sipping on the tea, enjoying the weather through the window, when she heard footsteps coming her way. “Baisa”, she mumbled under her breath.
“Happy birthday, Gudiya.”, Baisa smiled. “23 years old now, all the training will finally bear its fruit. It is a big day for you, beta. Get ready and come downstairs. Ladkiya intazaar kar rahi hai. And don’t forget to wear that laachha we bought last month. Hara rang bohot jachta hai tujh par.”
Baisa was very excited. The biggest day for Savitri had finally come. 18 years of training was going to benefit. She never really said it, but everyone in the haveli knew that Baisa loved Savitri the most. There were 26 girls living with her, all trained by Baisa herself, but she loved Savitri’s dance the most. “She dances not with her body, but with her heart.” she would say.
For Baisa, Savitri was a treasure that she found 18 years ago in the dingy lanes of Culcutta. Raised in a poor family, it was easier for her to bring Savitri along. “25 Rupiye me de diya“, she once told a lady while buying flowers. Lucknow was new for Savitri but she blended in so well that no one could tell Baisa was not her mother and the other girls, her sisters. Everything that was taught, she learned it quickly – be it Kathak or Nazakat.
But, Savitri was not at all excited. She had been waiting, and for 5 years now.
Savitri was only 4 years old when Baisa bought her to Lucknow. Unknown to the place, she never missed on making new friends. She loved playing around, dancing, singing, and her love for food usually got the khaansaama in trouble. She would pester him for putting more chillies and when he finally would, Baisa would scold him for upsetting her stomach. Her mischievous self was so lively that it wasn’t long before the neighbourhood found out about a lovely girl with billautiya eyes living next to them. Savitri had so many friends inside the haveli, 26 to be precise, that she never felt the need to make friends outside. Hridhay was an exception. He was a 6-year-old who lived in the lane next to hers. He would come to their neighbour’s every evening to learn Sitar.
One evening when she was on the terrace, throwing pebbles at the passer by, she heard Hridhay play. The music was so soft and melodious that she could not help but listen more. Her feet were dancing and she felt ecstatic. The effect of Hridhay’s music was so that she made it a point to be on terrace, the same time, every evening.
This is how they became friends. And it wasn’t long before they were holding hands and making promises to each other. “Sheher jaa k bhoolega toh nahi?” 16-year old Savitri would ask him innocently, pointing at him her index finger, trying to look strict and intimidating. “Nahi bhoolunga bhai, nahi bhoolunga.” Hridhay would smile at her childish gestures.
Sitting beside the window pane Savitri was lost in thoughts. The last day they had met was 5 years behind, but the mark that it left on her felt as fresh as yesterday. “Mai aa jaunga. Intazar karna.”, he had said while tucking a strand of her hair behind the ear. Without any address, any telephone number, or knowledge of where Hridhay was, all she did was think of him and wait. She would imagine a hundred scenarios of what would happen when they would meet again. She would think of how she would be angry at him for not receiving a single letter, a single call. And how he would try to appease her by telling how beautiful she had grown.
“Aree you are not ready yet? Baisa is waiting.”, Said Rupali, pulling Savitri back from her reveries.
“Aa rahi hu.“
It was after months that she was finally going to do Sringaar. For months she refused to look good, but today was different. It was like a part of her duty towards Baisa and she loved her.
Her black hair were tied in a long braid, decorated with a jewel and trail of flowers. The maang tika sat slightly above her forehead. Big round earrings of gold shone on her saawali skin. Baisa was right, the green laachha with golden wire-work made her look gorgeous. The thick metal bangles with white crystals adorned her wrists while the big floral rings sat heavy on her delicate fingers.
Rupali had brought alta, red dye, for Savitri to put on her hands and feet. Slowly and carefully she made a circle on her palm. Then she took a thin glass stick and made a sun-like design out of it. She painted the tips of her fingers and repeated the design on her feet and toes. Another glass stick was dipped into the black powder, surma. She slid the stick gracefully along her lower eyelids. Wearing the paste of fig on her lips, she gave them color. Finally, she wore a heavy anklet made of silver and a Kundan necklace studded with several green gems and mirrors.
“Oh look how beautiful, how gorgeous you look my baby!”, exclaimed Baisa as she entered the room. “Come I have come to take you downstairs. Those men will not be able to take their eyes off you. The beauty of your sringaar is sure to fascinate them. And your dance, your dance will spell bind them. Hume tawaif nahi, jaadugarni kehna chahiye.” chuckled Baisa.
“Baisa”, her tender voice spoke with unsurety. “Can I not go with them? Can’t I stay here with you?”
“Oh, my dear little girl, I love you too and lord knows how much I am going to miss you. But it is only a matter of time, 2 years will pass in a blink of an eye. Soon you will be back to me. Don’t worry about anything. Their Seth is rich. He will make sure you are comfortable. Doodh me nahayegi, doodh me.” She kissed Savitri’s temple with love and care of a mother.
“What if Hridhay comes back while I am in Rajasthan?” she asked so innocently that Baisa could not help but feel a pang in her heart for the girl.
“Nahi aayega vo.”, she said with bitterness. “Aana hota toh aa gaya hota ab tak. 5 saal ho gaye bacchhi, ab toh samjh jaa. Bohot farak hai un me aur hum me. He could not have faced the world. He could not have fought against his family. Don’t think about the past too much. Prepare yourself for what is to come. Look there – there they are seated – the men.”
Savitri saw them seated in a traditional Rajasthani attire. They were smoking hookah and looking around, they were talking and laughing.
Whatever it was they were discussing came to a halt as soon as they saw Savitri. “Ghani futri dikhe“, said one while nodded the other. “We have already waited too long that we are growing a little impatient. Shuru karo“, said the men when the first thaak on tabla echoed in the entire hall, and slowly the jhankar of Savitri’s anklets mixed with it.