‘Raater moton kaalo.’ Black as the night. Your father welcomed you into the world with these words, tagging you for life with a cliché that could be churned into stories of conflicting viewpoints. Like the time boys chased you or followed you from school and then college; your story was always different from that of your family. Going by their reaction, you were the errant one, not the boys. How could they be? Who woos a dark girl? Yet, you were lucky father thought of ‘night’, not ‘coal’, another popular simile for the dark skinned. As you grew up, to you, the night was never dark; it was a luminous, throbbing expanse, sparkling with starlight, an opaque, endless beauty. Beautiful, unclaimed, unconquered.
Look! There you stand, bedecked, before prospective grooms and their families. It’s always late evening, never in the daytime. In the muted light of fading evening, the skin seems less dark. Where is Suvarna, the fair sibling? You are Kaali. ‘The black one or the Goddess?’ you asked. Your Kaaki christened you Shyama as soon she saw you in the hospital room, a name more imbued with devotion, less resonant of the family’s qualms. Mother’s eyes had welled up with tears at the sight of the dark bundle next to her, genes carried from forgotten generations. ‘Why do you cry, didi?’ Kaaki asked her. ‘I’ll call her Shyama, she’ll remind you of the Shyama Sangeet you love.’
‘Don’t walk out at night, hariye jaabi, you’ll get lost.’ Your cousins sniggered. You were always the ghost, wrapped in a white shawl, your face invisible in the darkness. In Catch, Suvarna was the first to be caught out, her brightness a dead giveaway, they said. Didn’t all of you play games that were fixed, as were attitudes, jokes, complexes? What happened when Suvarna decided to elope, her chosen groom a religious outcast for the family? She turned to you for help, not the other girls in the family, not her friends. You were no threat. You strolled past the house with her lover, the signal for the moment of elopement, till the appointed place in the market where his friend waited for them in his car. They would drive across the state border and marry in a temple on a hilltop, no other temple would do for that one was known to bless couples like them, make their marriages fructify. The amount of work such a god would have! Isn’t that what you thought of as the lovers embraced?
At the car’s open door, Suvarna hugged you. ‘Try and get yourself a husband,’ she said. Her lover looked over the car’s roof and smiled, ‘Thanks. All the best.’ His friend, already at the steering wheel, gave you a cursory look. Your role was fixed where the three were concerned — you would spend a lifetime escorting eloping couples, living your fantasies through them. As soon as the car left, you looked around and found a bench in front of a café, your belly aching with suppressed laughter. There were few people at that afternoon hour. Laughter erupted as you sat on the wooden bench, tears coursing down your cheeks, all attempts at holding back given up, succumbing to the moment, unmindful of passing glances and comments. You turned and looked into your twice-darkened face in the café’s tinted glass, your eyes large, thick lashed, kohl lined. Mihir called you Krishnakali, Tagore’s dark hued village belle.
‘If we have to elope we’ll elope at night.’
Mihir and you were sitting at the base of a grassy slope outside his house. Anybody looking down from the top of the slope would see only the tops of two heads. Your hair, though, would give you away. You’d left it loose.
‘If we run away at night your family won’t be able to catch us in a hurry. They won’t be able to see you at all.’ His eyes danced.
You leaned into him. ‘They are so sure I can’t have a boyfriend that they won’t think of giving chase.’
‘So when do we elope? No fun in the daytime. No thrill.’
‘Let’s run away from the Durga Puja pandal, in front of everyone.’
How the two of you giggled at that. The other girls of the family were chaperoned since they had grown up. Nobody gave you a second thought. Your blackness was your freedom.
‘Actually, why do we need to elope at all? If I propose to your family, they’ll consider me heaven sent, won’t they? The ready groom. Why worry?’
‘This boy will choose you,’ your mother had said, parting the curtain just a little to give you a peep at the ‘boy’ sitting by the window, his right hand holding the teacup, the left in his coat pocket. ‘What’s wrong with his hand?’ You asked her. ‘Oh that? It’s nothing. An accident in his childhood. He doesn’t have fingers on that hand.’
‘I don’t want to marry him, I told Ma.’
Jhumpa was aghast. ‘But why?’
Mihir had just walked into the room. You were still getting acquainted.
‘What excuse did you cook up?’ Jhumpa asked.
‘He cleans himself with his right hand, I can’t marry him.’
‘You told your mother that?’ Mihir had pulled up a chair and sat in front of you, his eyes bulging.
‘They’ve stopped groom hunting at least. Stopped talking to me too. “You don’t look into the mirror often enough,” kaaki said.’
Hats off, guru.’ Mihir said. He looked at you longer than he had ever done. His eyes sparkled with mirth; they mellowed with something else. Jhumpa slapped you on the back, dislodging the moment from your eyes. ‘Good for you. I’ll get tea, don’t go away. Dada, stop staring at her.’
Two weeks after that night, two weeks of not meeting, Mihir invited you to dinner.
Look how you draped your saree, how it clung to you, like a kindred soul; how you strode into the restaurant and looked for him and not finding him there you pulled out a chair near the windows and began your wait.
Mihir reached ten minutes late. You watched him lock his car and cross the road. The streetlights were bright but the windowpane darkened his image....
‘Is that how you felt when you held me in your arms? Fettered?’
Mihir looked away from the bluntness of your question, at the hubbub on the road outside. Durga Puja was only a week away; the city’s streets and roads, lanes and alleys throbbed with the festive spirit. ‘Overwhelmed,’ he muttered. ‘Mihir.’ Your voice sanitised. ‘Look at me.’
He did. ‘I can’t. Live with you.’
What were you thinking? That Mihir was a foregone conclusion; that you always knew about the end? When he held you that night, hesitant at first, then with rising excitement, he conquered stigma but you were no supplicant. He would get to know. You always knew.
‘You confuse me.’ He said. And then, ‘Whom will you marry?’
You could have feigned despair at the question; instead, you raised an eyebrow. ‘I like the subject-hood.’
He picked up the glass of water. ‘I did love you, you know?’
‘But not honestly enough.’
He pushed the plate away. ‘Don’t do this to yourself.’
‘No, Mihir. I won’t do this to myself.’
As I look back, I know I was ready for the moment when Mihir said ‘I can’t’, for that moment when I stepped out of the restaurant and the night with its stars and streetlights wrapped around me. I walked out to freedom, to me. The night was brilliant, resonant. As I turned the corner of an old building, a man with a beedi between his lips, his lungi hitched up, stepped back from the verandah and pulled the curtain across an incomplete Durga idol. I stopped. ‘Have to paint Ma Durga’s eyes now,’ he said. I nodded and carried on.
Excerpted with permission from Cast Out by Sucharita Dutta-Asane, published by Dhauli Books, Bhubaneshwar, 2018.