“You say you know me and have come to pay your debt of gratitude. You want to know everything, but this life-story is neither worth listening to nor an eventful affair that I would go foraging into the crevices of my memory. Yet, you have been incessant and mentioned in the passing that my eyes, which have stayed hidden too long in the sooty folds of my veil, have a beautiful story to tell. I laugh because these eyes are nothing but dense, cloudy windows. From what I can make out, you pause to look at my tattooed mottled skin and say - beauty lies in the ordinariness of you and me.
And, so I will try to look through my inward vision into an obliterated space I dread stepping in till this day, and hunt in its pervading blackness.
I don’t quite remember my childhood, except the abandonment by a woman intertwined with shadows, so much so, that I only remember her as one. Like a cradle, she rocked day and night. I spent my days in the grunge, scavenging for food in the tatters of her odhni and found nothing but dust.
Another woman, Amma, who had heard me wailing from a constant ache in my stomach and ribs, took me in and gave me a mouthful of milk and scrapings, thinking I would be a worthy addition to her band. And, was I not! We cried and bawled, we howled and beat our chests. It’s an art. More the importance and repute of the deceased, saltier the tears had to be. Five of us huddled in one corner in black, we displayed a high-pitched sing-song for the corpse and the men around, who couldn’t feel enough sorrow. “Women’s hearts are weak”, they said.
And the time we spent in the hut in hushed voices, we smiled together and laughed at how shrill young Bani sounded, till one day, Amma was called alone to the Haveli of the Thakur and only returned after a few moons had passed. She wept, not in the familiar sing-song way, but her eyes crinkled, her lips bled and her soul turned into a blue hue. Overcome with a fit of rage, I wanted to scream and hurtle but was grabbed by my hair, smacked hard and forbidden to even dare have a distant thought about it.
More trips followed and before it was my turn to be taken away, I escaped with Bani. We ran till our legs felt like they were trapped in quicksand. We crossed the fields and heavy sandstorm but before we could cross the periphery, Thakur found us.
The price paid for defying was the scars that have slowly melted into this wrinkled skin. We became a thing of feast and show while mourning the deaths of those we secretly wished were dead. However, nothing could deter the storm that raged on in my heart, even when one time, I was caught trying to save a newborn from the clutches of the monstrosity that lurks in the regal palaces of Tahad. If you could, you’d see Thakur’s wrath still flashing in my eyes. Even so, what keeps that storm still raging on, are the many I saved nevertheless. A day hasn’t passed without wishing them well. I know now, my prayers also get answered.
The land you stand on belongs to murderers who are the mighty and royals with elephants and horses and kept women. Everything you look around the sun touches is their property, even our existence. I say it again - my life-story is as worthless as the dust that collects in your hair, on your face, in between your lips and eyes. I have told you what my inward vision allowed me to see. You ask my name and I don’t remember. I am a Rudaali. I am a seller of grief. I cannot go with you for a better life you promise, but visit my grave, my kind girl, and maybe shed a tear, for harsh winds blow and dry them up even before they fall.”
Ritika Bali is from the city of Nawabs, Lucknow. She is a graduate of Lady Shri Ram College for Women. After having worked in the corporate for about three years, she wants to now fully engage with the writers’ community and explore the realm of storytelling in fiction at full throttle. Her favourite author is Roald Dahl and poet is John Keats.