Earrings for My Daughter

By Maliha Iqbal

Maya stared out of the window. It was dark but she couldn’t sleep. Her mother and little brother snored away next to her. The night was hot and she was sweating continuously, her clothes kept sticking to her body. The mosquito net made it hotter but it provided safety from those great big brutes.

Maya was six with big dark eyes and a cheerful face. Her brother was only two and was a great time-pass for her. Her mother’ name was Mira and she was wonderful too though she sometimes got angry and shouted at her and sometimes, only sometimes beat her.

Maya’s typical day started with the cock’s cry. She always heard him first. She would jump out of bed and race towards the tube well in the aangan to wash her face. There would be dozens of crows at that time. All cawing and flying about or simply pecking at bits of food. As long as her mother didn’t force her to bath, she was contended with life.

Her next stop was the school after eating some mangoes or plain rice for breakfast. She loved eating rice. It tasted good with everything. Salt, vegetables, dal– you name it. She sat at one of the rickety chairs and waited impatiently for school to get over. Then came the midday meal- the food was quite nice. They got a boiled egg twice a week. That was the best part of school.

She would race home with her friends. Her books would be thrown aside and she would wash her face again (thanks to her mother). Sometimes she helped out in the kitchen with her mother. She already knew how to make lovely round rotis and some vegetables.

There were just four brick and cement buildings in the whole village. All four belonged to the rich landowner, Ajmer Pradhan. Almost every land in and around the village was his. He lived in the largest house with his wife. The rest of the houses belonged to his three sons. All married and settled with children. The four houses formed a square around a massive neem tree.

Other than that, there were dozens of mud houses that were spread randomly in a 1km radius. Maya knew the village like the back of her hand and she knew everybody around too. In fact there was hardly anybody who did not know the whole village.

Most of her morning was spent at school. Her afternoon included playing on the swing that had been made with a rope tied to the big neem tree. God knows how old the rope was or how many generations and had played on it.  Gilli danda was fun too but she preferred the swing because of the cool shade of the tree. She sometimes tended to her neighbor’s goats for a sweet or two.

By twilight the whole village began feeling drowsy. In the reddish- orange glow of the sun, they lounged on their roofs on charpais, the soothing breeze caressing their hair. Men came in from the fields and the small gossiping groups of women broke up as they hurried to get them a glass of water.

Maya sometimes thought of her father when she saw all those people coming from the fields. She knew he lived in…. what was that? She couldn’t recall the name. He came home sometimes and always brought beautiful gifts for her. Lately, things seemed different. Her mother no longer sent her to school and she missed the boiled eggs. Her father had only talked to her once in the beginning of the month.

Mira was very worried. She had no idea what was happening. She just knew that there was monstrous disease in the world. “God is punishing us.” Her husband was in Punjab and he was starving. No work, no money and all the shops closed. He had called her few days ago. She had no phone of her own but Ajmer bhai was very kind and had generously asked Jumman to call on his phone whenever he needed to speak with Mira.

“Hello? Oh! Thank God! I was so worried. You didn’t call me for so long.”
“Listen Mira, I have borrowed someone’s phone. I sold mine because I had no money. You know how things are. This Karona is very bad. I have hardly any money.”
“How are you living? Please come back.”
“I am sorry Mira but I will have to use the money we saved for Maya’s marriage. A goods truck will take me out of the city and then I will walk. I have some companions with me. All the villagers are coming back. Tell everyone not to worry.”

Mira had no idea how far Punjab was from their little village in Bihar. She didn’t realize how much Ram would have to walk.

“Can you please talk to Maya? She misses you so much.”

Ram had hardly anytime but the temptation to talk to his daughter was too much.

Bapu! How are you? When are you coming? You know what? I climbed the neem today. The view was…..”
Ram smiled. It was so good to hear her carefree voice. His smile vanished when he heard her say,

Bapu, please get those earrings for me. I want them so much. Please. Please.”

It had been a sort of tradition. Ram always brought a pair of earrings for Maya whenever he came home. Large flimsy, bright colored ones. Somewhat garish but Maya loved them. She wore them all the time until they fell apart. A pair usually lasted two-three weeks.

Forty rupees. He couldn’t afford that luxury now.

“We will see…..”
“Please Bapu! Please.”
“Maya I don’t have much money now….”
“Please. Please.”

She hardly asked for anything and he felt guilty using her marriage money.

“Okay dear.”

“Thank you! Promise me.”
“I promise.”

Ram lived in a tiny run-down apartment with ten people. All of them were fellow villagers who worked here because of the better salary.

He had hardly any money. What to do? He sat in a corner and brooded over everything. It all came down to “But what about the money?”

Seeing his preoccupied look, someone shouted,

“What is the matter with you?”
Ram turned sad eyes on him.

“I need money.”

Immediately the situation became tense. Nobody had much and they felt uncomfortable. A heavy silence fell upon everyone until Faiyaz Mahmood, the oldest among them said,

“How much money do you need? We are all brothers. I will help you.”

Faiyaz had two daughters to marry but he could never see anyone in pain. He liked helping everyone he could and Ram was, but a fellow villager.

“Forty rupees.”

Another silence. That was too much. Nobody could afford that now. Even one rupee mattered now. Most of them had around thousand rupees with them but Ram had even less.

“Here, take this. You can return it to me later.” Faiyaz thrust a ten-rupee note in Ram’s hand. He was taken aback.

He looked so grateful that everyone in the room felt great affection for. They were his brothers, they lived in the same village.

That is something strange. In India, unity among people of villages is startling. They bicker, they gossip but they will kill a stranger if he bickered with their own fellow villager. A stranger was stranger and had his limits.

They all gave him some money and Ram finally had twenty rupees. Early the next morning he hurried to the market and went to a shabby little house. A man opened the door and grinned at him. He was the earring-seller. Ram knew him a little and had once had tea with him but the man seemed too sly so Ram had decided to keep their relationship to hi-hello only.

He purchased the earrings and pocketed them. Today was the day they were to leave for Bihar. They would leave at night. The man put the money in a small box and looked inquiringly at him.

“Are you leaving?”

Ram decided that he did not like him.

“No. I must be going now.”

He went away before the annoying man could say anything more.

It was raining. Maya stood at the door and looked out. It had been more than a month. Where was Bapu? She thought longingly about her beautiful earrings.

Her mother and grandmother had acted so strange when Bapu had called them. They had clung on to each other and cried rivers of tears. It seemed to Maya that they were crying just for the sake of crying. He was coming back. What was the problem then? He hadn’t called after that.

In the hazy curtain of rain she saw a group walking towards the village. Some men. Could they…? Could they possibly be….?

Her heart was thumping as she ran across the muddy road. Her light feet had wings on them. She could fly now. The rain felt delightful on her skin.

“Bapu! Bapu! Bapu!”

She ran amidst the men and looked around for her father.  She was completely out of breath. Her eyes fell on Faiyaz.

“Faiyaz chacha! Where is Bapu?”

Everyone felt very uncomfortable. What were they supposed to tell her? That her father had died of exhaustion? That he didn’t have a penny in his pocket as he lay dying? He just had one thing with him.

Faiyaz took out the bright colored earrings from his pocket and handed them to her. She looked ecstatic and jumped about happily.

Mira walked towards them. The anticipation on her face was difficult not to be noticed. Downcast eyes and bowed heads. Mira could not understand it.

“Where is my husband?”

There was heavy silence as the rain fell down steadily.

About the Author: 

Maliha Iqbal is a freelance writer settled in Aligarh.

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