Susmita Bhattacharya


There’s a wedding in my village. My best friend’s father is getting married.

I’ve known Salima since we were babies. Our mothers sat side by side, nursing us while swapping village gossip in the sultry afternoons after having cooked and fed their families. Salima is the third child, but the only daughter so she is spoilt rotten by her father. I am the third child too, but I’m not so lucky. We have no boys in our family. My father curses and kicks in our direction when he comes home.

Today everyone is smiling though. There’s a wedding, a time to celebrate. Mother’s been making sweetmeats since dawn. My sisters giggle as they gaze at the henna designs on their palms and feet. What intricate designs Salima has done for all of us. She is so good at such things. She keeps her father’s house clean and beautiful. She places bunches of flowers in tin cans on the window sills. She makes the most delicate doll’s clothes out of scraps of cloth we beg off the tailor’s wife.

Salima’s turned quiet since the mention of the wedding. Her mother died last year when a scorpion stung her. It had been a cold night, and the scorpion must have hidden in the logs of wood for warmth. It was for the same reason that Salima’s mother had stepped out to get more wood for the fire. Her new born baby was cold. When the scorpion stung, she didn’t cry out. She ran inside, or so Salima told me every day after the incident, added more wood to the fire and fed the baby. Only after that she fainted, too weak to ask for help. By the time her husband came home, he saw her lying on the floor and the baby screaming next to her.

It was a horrible night. What bad luck Salima’s mother had. It was too late to call the doctor, who was visiting a patient in the next village. She writhed in agony while the village elder made cuts in her leg to let the poison bleed out. But she didn’t survive. We saw the life leave her body.

Salima’s father cleared out the log pile and hunted for the scorpion. He swore he would kill the shaitan that had ruined their lives. But the scorpion was never to be found. Salima looked after her baby brother like an obsessed mother. She allowed no one to come near him. But Salima was supposed to be married off that year. She resisted, but her father was adamant. The boy was a good catch: an educated man who lived in the city. She wanted to take her baby brother with her. Of course that wasn’t a good idea. So her father decided to marry again. That way he’d have a wife to care for him and the baby, and Salima could get married once the mourning period was over.

They searched for a girl in the village. But no one wanted to give their daughter away to an old man with two grown up sons and two younger children. He owned two cows that gave good milk. Some people complained he watered down the milk he sold, but he was always fair to us. I’ve grown fat on the cream his wife fed me when I played with Salima. He was not a rich man who could buy a wife. So he refused to accept a dowry. And the offers came. Especially if one had too many girls to marry off, this was a good match.

The moment has arrived. It is the auspicious moment for the wedding. The bride cannot be in the presence of men, so she waits in her home while the men in her family go to the bridegroom’s house. Her father will repeat the vows after the imam. Meanwhile the women rejoice in her house. My sisters sing and clap their hands. They whirl around the room, singing wedding songs.

When my eldest sister had heard of the wedding, she didn’t approve. He is a widower, she said. He is poor. He’s getting a good deal, not asking for dowry is the trick he’s playing. But who cares about what my sister says? She with two girls scrabbling at her feet and one attached to her breast?

My mother berates her. You’re married to a school teacher, she says. You have an educated man to stuff ideas in your head. But don’t go about voicing your opinions. Bear sons and make your husband proud.

My second sister has no opinion. She doesn’t talk, just sits in a corner all day long. She’s always been so slow. But on the nights when my mother cannot bear it, she sobs and tells me how my father did this to her. He kicked her on the head when she was a baby, crawling under his feet to get a piece of bread. Bloody girl, he had snarled and lashed out at her. Ever since then, she’s been different. Present, but not quite there.

When told to, she can dance. Whirl round and round, there’s no stopping her. Like she’s doing now. Does she even know why she’s dancing? Salima doesn’t join in. She watches me, and I feel her sadness. What will become of her when her new mother comes to live in her house? I laugh at those words, new mother. Can anyone replace a mother? Salima had spat out at me when I had said those words to her. No one can be my mother, she had screamed at me.

We don’t play together anymore. We don’t braid each other’s hair or lurk in the mango orchards to steal the fruit. It is time to think about husbands. It is time to build the boundaries around us.

As children we loved to talk about our wedding day. The bridegroom on his horse. We’d giggle and deny it but we knew this was the truth. The day we were born was the day our parents thought of our weddings. The burden of that big day. As women we were a curse. Until we bore sons.

Imagine, just imagine, we’d giggle. Right now, somewhere in this world he exists. He’s eating his lunch and burping. Farting, Salima would chip in and we’d roll on the floor till tears ran out. He’s there, he’s alive and he’s waiting for us.

We talked of it as fairytale romances. Beautiful dreamscapes, worth its weight in our parents’ blood and sweat and tears.

The drum is beating outside Salima’s house. The nikkah is complete. The couple are married. He didn’t want a band, so the sole drummer announces the happy event. I can picture her father, looking embarrassed, wanting the fuss to die down. Wanting his bride to come over and take over the reins of his household.

My mother stuffs a sweetmeat in my mouth. I watch Salima’s insolent gaze on me. In this moment our relationship has changed. She has to respect me. She has to accept me. The women nudge her and she places the baby in my arms. He plays with my garland and giggles. She turns and runs from the room. I want to run after Salima. But I know what is expected of me. I hold the child close to my face, and let him nuzzle and drool on my face.

I am Henna. I am thirteen years old, and I am the bride.

Susmita Bhattacharya is from Mumbai, India. She received an M.A. in Creative Writing from Cardiff University and is published in Wasafiri, Litro, Penguin-India, Planet-the Welsh Internationalist,, the BBC etc. She lives in Plymouth, UK. Her debut novel will be published by Parthian Books in 2014. For more on Bhattacharya’s work, click here.