Chaya

The sky was weeping over Dal Lake the day Chaya and Hamir journeyed on a ferryboat. Behind a geography of folds on his face, the boatman had a look of delight that seemed not to correspond to the situation. Soon he began to sing to himself, sneezing through the verses, but only the lake listened, swaying its crowd of weeds.

Hamir watched Chaya’s gaze follow the wake of the boat. She seemed not to notice that drops of rain were assembling on her scalp or that their newborn twisted in her lap. Her hair was neatly pulled into a chignon but her lips were parted, betraying no emotion. The couple were journeying back to Chaya’s old household. Hamir remembered when it was once like an aviary, six daughters and even more maids, and only one man, the austere father.

“In time, you will marry a boy I choose,” her father had once said to Chaya, but Hamir was not that boy. He waited at the lake every night of their twentieth year, as promised. Finally, the day Chaya was to be wed to somebody else, they crossed the lake and walked eastward until they couldn’t see the water behind them, and until they didn’t recognise the village names. A temple priest in a village called Leh married the unholy couple.

They were unknown in Leh, and so their arrival inspired all kinds of rumours. “The girl’s heart whistles!” proclaimed the wise lady of the village. “I’ve heard her speak to the stars during the daytime,” said another lady, a widow who knitted scarves the colour of clouds. Though the villagers found Chaya peculiar and though they believed the couple had been curiously matched, the villagers eventually tired of gossip. In fact, they found Hamir’s opinions pleasant and his humour unaggressive. They paid him to count each grain of barley in their fields and they paid Chaya to nurture the village’s only cactus.

Very little happened in Leh. Most of the time, people spent waiting; they sat and argued about the colour of water, and waited for the rivers to widen. They collected fireflies in preparation for the monsoon, and waited for their children to grow. They waited for someone to visit, and then waited for them to leave. Although Hamir had become accustomed to their exile, he noted Chaya’s growing disengagement. Hamir found it difficult to keep her attention, and their conversations became increasingly circuitous. Every so often, Chaya would speak of happenings in Dal Lake, new suitors for her younger sisters and new servants in her father’s household.

Three years passed in this way before the birth of their first child. Eventually, Chaya resumed her village duties with the newborn in her arms. She walked toward the centre courtyard, as absently as always, not noticing that on that day the rivers had indeed widened, that all the barley in the fields had been counted, and that there were no more clouds for the widow’s scarves. The moment she saw the cactus, the whistling in her heart ceased. The incorporeal god of desire, Kāma, had struck her with his floral arrows and for the first time, Chaya looked her newborn in the eyes to find that the child looked right through her, its eyes elsewhere.

Chaya and Hamir left Leh the following day. Throughout the morning on the ferryboat, Hamir struggled in tangles of words. He tried to construct and reconstruct the crucial information. How would he phrase it when the time came? What would he say? Would it be appropriate to beg Chaya’s father for a thousand apologies? Or should he assure the sahib of Chaya’s safety and her good life in Leh? Perhaps their return will be the cure for her increasing homesickness, Hamir thought, but how long would she want to stay with her sisters? Bringing his mind home to his body, Hamir saw that Chaya had fallen asleep, that the rain had quietened, and that the boatman had finished his song and was steering the bow towards a wooden pier.

Hamir noticed a few new homes by the lakeside but the market rituals seemed unchanged. They navigated their way beyond the market chaos and walked in a thoughtful silence with measured steps. Finally, Chaya insisted Hamir go alone to her old household to test her father’s moods.

A servant who was sweeping the broad flight of steps greeted Hamir. The house smelled of sandalwood and the garden was abundant with marigold flowers. After some time, the old sahib appeared at the door. He did not show any signs that he recognised Hamir and glanced at the servant questioningly. He stood tall, both his slender hands resting over the head of a cane. Hamir bowed and touched Chaya’s father’s feet before beginning, “Salam sahib. This is about your daughter, Chaya. We were married three years ago. She has a baby and they would both like to see you.” The words from Hamir’s lips were like marbles spilled from a glass jar. The sahib’s face became pursed, and yet when he spoke, he sounded both embarrassed and worried. “Young man, you are mistaken. My eldest daughter, Chaya, is not only unmarried, she has been living here in this home since her childhood. I will call her, if you would like to speak with her.”

Hamir was taken aback. Had he arrived at the wrong house? Were they speaking of the same girl? Perhaps the old father had become senile. He wanted to question the sahib, but kept his composure, if only out of respect. Hamir questioned then why Chaya had sent him here alone, why she insisted on leaving Leh so urgently. Slowly, the possibility dawned on him that it was not a mistake. He found his legs unstable and his mouth unable to speak. It was then Hamir understood that the night Chaya had joined him at Dal Lake, she had left half of herself behind; desire had split Chaya in two.

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