Baisa had already given her some idea about Rajasthan. Tall camels, multiple strongholds and mahals, rich handicrafts, colourful apparels, blue ceramics, paintings, and bangles made of lac. Everything about it sounded lively. But, it was nothing compared to the view of the city that was now in front of Savitri. Colours were brighter than she had imagined, there were men singing and women dancing. Savitri had never seen camels before, and in her imagination, they were only as tall as big horses, only with a hump on their backs. Looking at dresses decorated with mirrors, her embroidered lehenga strangely felt less charming.
The commotion of the city slowly faded as they entered the premises of the haveli. “Utaaro chhori ne.”, said one of those men. A woman appeared. She was wearing a red coloured ghaghara-choli with odhani. “Ghani khamma, padharo saa mahre Rajasthan me“, she said with a soft smile on her face. Savitri couldn’t understand Marwari but she knew that the lady’s gestures were kind and welcoming. Her smile had already won the trust and friendship of Savitri.
The first thing that she noticed after getting down the buggy was the grandeur of a mansion that stood before her. High walls with beautiful jharokhe and two men, with big moustaches that covered their cheek entirely, standing upright like mannequins with a rifle in their left hands. The haveli was surrounded by a huge lawn, where she now stood gaping at the luxurious view.
Just when her eyes began adjusting to the magnificence of the place, she found herself standing in a big hall decorated with extravagant statues, paintings, carpets, and chandeliers. “Wow!” she exclaimed just before the woman insisted on moving to the inner chambers. “Andar chalo, it is not good for a young girl to stand here in the halls.”, she said.
Her room was bigger than the one in Lucknow. The settings were not as extravagant as of the hall but the bed was bigger, decorated in ivory and the floor was covered in carpet. Beautiful dresses were already put there for her. The curtains were heavy and lamps were painted with pastel-like paints. “Take rest, it must have been a long journey for you. Send for me if you need anything. My name is Rangoli.”
The journey was indeed tiresome. Hot weather and rough road had drained the energy out of her. It didn’t take long before Savitri was asleep. Even in her sleep, she was dreaming of Baisa, Rupali, other girls, and Hridhay. They were all together in Lucknow and looked very happy. Hridhay had come back as promised. He had proved Baisa wrong by asking Savitri to marry him. All the girls were very excited for their wedding. It was beautiful.
“Laddo! Uth ja chhori. Raja Sa has sent for you. Tayyar ho ja aur chal mhare gael.”
Still sleepy, Savitri opened an eye and yawned. A middle-aged woman stood in front of her. She must have been around 42 years old. It was a familiar face – Rangoli, she had told that her name was.
“Your name is Savitri, right?”, asked Rangoli with a broad smile on her face, “We heard a lot about your beauty. The men would talk of nothing else at times. You are more beautiful than we had imagined.” Rangoli was very sweet.
Flattered by her praises, Savitri couldn’t help but smile. Her crimsoned cheeks were the tell-tale of her naivety.
“Have you been to other places as well?”
“It is the first time actually. I have never before left home like this.”
“And dance? Have you done it in front of strangers before?
“Only the two men from this haveli.” she smiled guiltily and Rangoli couldn’t help but reflect that smile.
Wearing her peach lehenga, Savitri was ready to meet Raja Sa. She had never met him before and listening to how people mentioned him, with some sort of urgency and seriousness, she imagined him to be very strict and rigid. It made her nervous and a little afraid. She silently rehearsed everything Baisa had taught her about conducting herself, showing a ladylike delicacy, and smiling charmingly. She prepared herself for the meeting while climbing down the grand staircase, while walking on the velvet carpet, even while entering the sabha.
“In what thoughts are you lost, Savitri. Look up, we’ve reached.” insisted Rangoli.
There were around 14 men sitting on each side the hall, while a tall man sat in the middle. While the rest were relaxed sitting on their velvet chairs, the man in the middle sat upright with each hand on the armrest. His complexion was dusky and he spoke politely but authoritatively, “Aajyo Rangoli.”
“Ghani Khamma, Thakur saa. Here’s the girl you had sent for. Let me take your leave.” Said Rangoli as joined her hands and left the hall, leaving Savitri on her own.
Standing in an empty hallway, wearing a peach lehenga, she looked gorgeous. Her olive skin shone under the light of the chandeliers. Standing in the middle of strange men in a strange place, her eyes did not dare look up. She waited for Raja Sa to say anything, to break the silence. Her mind could sense men ogling, roving their eyes freely at her. She wanted to run away home.
“You were right Devdutt. She is indeed very beautiful.” said he. “I hope the journey was comfortable and brought you no trouble.”
“Ji, Thakur saa.” the man sitting on his left side spoke with pride, without averting his eyes from the lovely figurine that stood there for him.
“That is good news. Your name is Savitri right?” The mention of her name caught her attention and she nodded.
“You can go for now and take rest. You will be sent for tomorrow evening. We are expecting guests and you have to make sure that they are entertained. You will be paid enough, as decided between your Bawd and Devdutt.”
“Ji.”, she nodded meekly, not understanding what they were talking about. Surprised at how much a simple art such as of dancing can earn her, she was thankful for all the efforts that Baisa had put in through the years while training her.
“Ask Rangoli if you need anything. It will be arranged immediately.” His voice was filled with chivalry that she had never witnessed before. Savitri couldn’t help but look at him.
His moustache was curved upwards on both the ends. He wore a muslin achkan, embroidered in golden threads and a tight pyjama. His fingers were adorned with multiple rings- all of them with jewels of different shapes and colours carved inside. The expressions on his face were exempted of any prurient wishes. He looked at her as he would look at any other person. Savitri had seen men come and go in her Baisa’a haveli. They all had that one expression, which she could not understand as a child but she knew that nothing good could possibly come out of it. She saw the same expression on Devdutt’s face when he had seen her dance in Lucknow. But, Raja Sa was looking at her with modesty.
“Teen raniya hai unki.” she remembered Baisa telling her, “aur suna hai sab ek se ek zever pehanti hai.”
“Three of them! How do they share their husband Baa? I would never do that.” she had said rebelliously to which Baisa had laughed.
The thought never left Savitri. How do his Raniya tolerate it? Him, in someone else’s chamber! Even the thought of it filled her with despair and rage. I could never share Hridhay with another woman.
Even the mention of Hridhay brought back her memories with him. She was so far away from Lucknow, but his thoughts had not left her. She had asked the girls to send a letter as soon as Hridhay returned.
But today she had other things also to think of. She was worried about the next evening. What was to happen? Will she perform up to the expectations of everyone? “I better rehearse a couple of times”, she thought as she got up from the bed.
Next day began with the traditional daal baati choorma that Rangoli had brought her “Have this Savitri, it is nothing like you would have tasted before.”. And she was right, the dish was nothing like she had ever had until now. But, nervous about the evening, she couldn’t eat much. She spent most of her day practicing and rest of it, looking for Rangoli.
The haveli was surreal for her. The ponds inside, their beautiful flower and candle decoration left her awestruck. Tall walls were carved in beautiful designs. There were statues of peacocks and numerous paintings. Even her kanchli was decorated with small frames of artwork.
While walking through the place, she came across a marbled section, different from the rest of the mansion. There were no men, only women playing, talking, busy with their daily chorus. “Stop there. You are not supposed to go in.” said a woman who was dressed entirely in white.
“What is this section for?”
“That is none of your business, chhori. Do you see that woman sitting near the pond? She is Maharani Sa, Raja sa’s wife. Binani se unki aur is haveli ne maalkin. It is her chamber. Tere jaisi chhoriya na aa sakti yaha. Goli chhoriyo ka kamra upar se. ” the woman said with hostility and left, leaving Savitri wondering. “What does she mean by Goli? May be that’s what they call dancers here. What hostility! Baisa was right, old age makes people cranky.”, thought she while leaving for her room. The sun was setting and her audience was waiting.