|Sahiban in exile|
Her name was Sahiban*. And she came visiting the ‘enemy country’. She came to see the relics of ancient monuments. And carried with her a letter requesting that she be allowed to stay for a few days. The letter was from an old friend who knew that they would be happy to host Sahiban in their home for a few days.
The parents of the family opened for her the airy guestroom, a little removed from the bustle of the living room. On the top floor of the house was a small apartment set amidst a terrace garden in bloom. The son of the family lived in the two rooms of the apartment.
There was tea ready for Sahiban when she arrived. After tea and pleasantries, she went to her room to freshen up. Soon, it was time for dinner. The son of the family had come down to the dining room and was arranging the flowers that he had brought from the terrace. The mother called Sahiban from the guestroom. She introduced Sahiban to her son and started laying out the meal. The family of three sat down to dinner with their guest, making small talk as they ate.
The next morning Sahiban had a cup of tea and ventured out to see the monuments and relics of this ancient city.
She would travel by bus all day, visiting one monument after another. She had brought a list with her. But she would always return home before dark and the dinner ceremony of the first evening would be replicated. There was only one change: Sahiban would always bring some flowers and sweets for the dining table. The mother asked her not to take the trouble, but Sahiban seemed to like coming back home with something for the family.
On the fourth day, there was a minor accident. The son hurt his leg while riding his motorcycle. There was no bruise, but he seemed to have pulled a ligament. He returned from the doctor’s clinic with a bandage on his leg, went straight to his den and lay down. In a few hours, the leg was so stiff that he could not raise it. His mother went up to foment the injury and give him tea.
That evening, when Sahiban returned and learned of the accident, she took the balm from the mother’s hands, went softly up the stairs and started massaging his leg. Then she gently massaged the soles of his feet to work out the stiffness. The young man was embarrassed. But her gentle touch was so soothing that he overcame his shyness.
That night, she took his dinner from his mother and went up to his room and spent the night on a settee there, in case he required any attention during the night. Next morning, she washed up in the bathroom upstairs and then came down to fetch his breakfast. After three days of tender care, the young man was up and about. He could not ride the motorbike, but he could drive the car.
He had taken a week’s leave from work when he got hurt, so he still had a few days off. There were some very interesting old monuments outside the city and some ruins too, he told his mother, and would she lend him the car to take Sahiban there?
The mother laughed in permission. She was relieved to see her son look somewhat happy. He had lost interest in women when the love of his college days did not work out. He would not consider marriage. He wouldn’t even go to parties.
Two days later, Sahiban asked him if he would take her to Hardwar. She wanted to bathe in the Ganga. He mentioned her request to his mother, who had no objection. So the two of them left for Hardwar.
Sahiban was of delicate build and she was always in simple, casual clothes. They reached Hardwar late in the evening. They rented two small cottages for the night at an ashram by the Ganga. Just before dawn, Sahiban went over and woke the young man so that together, they could watch the sun rise over the river.
He was still quite sleepy, but he washed his face and went out with her to the riverbank. Sahiban gazed at the shades of red splashed across the sky and reflected in the water. She climbed down the steps to bathe in the river, fully clad.
The young man stood on the bank. He was carrying neither a towel nor a change of clothing, so he did not climb down with her. He sat on the edge and played with the water. Then he saw Sahiban standing in the water with her hands folded, looking up at the sky, as though she were greeting the sun. He stared at her in amazement.
When she came out, thoroughly drenched, he said, "You should have brought a towel and a change."
Sahiban smiled. The hut was close enough, she said, she would go and change there.
Back in the ashram, after a change of clothes and a cup of tea, Sahiban said, "Take me to the city bazaar. I want to look in the shops." They might not be open yet, he replied, but they could stroll down and they might open by the time they got there.
The narrow-laned bazaars were selling river shells, rudraksha beads, scarves printed with the name of Ram, small boxes of saffron and musk. The girl looked at all this in awe. All of a sudden, she stopped by a shop selling red dupattas edged with golden tassel-work, glass bangles and bridal choorhas of ivory. Holding up her wrist to the shopkeeper, she asked for a choorha her size and put it on right there. Then she bought a red dupatta and some sindoor. Surprised, the young man said, "Sahiban, what will you do with all this? You might like them, but how can you return to your country wearing all this? Even the customs officers will wonder!"
The girl laughed, "How do my arms concern them?"
He was insistent, "But what are you up to?"
Sahiban said, "These are debts that Khuda will have to pay back."
When the two returned from Hardwar, Sahiban had a dot of sindoor on her forehead and some more in the parting of her hair. The wedding bangles were on her wrists and her head was covered with the red dupatta. Sahiban glowed like a bride.
The young man’s mother stared at her, astounded. She did not say a word to Sahiban but she cornered her son alone and said, "Tell me the truth! Have you and Sahiban got married?"
"Not at all, Ma," he laughed. "Neither of us have even talked of marriage. She took a fancy to those trinkets and put them on!"
"The silly girl shouldn’t return to her country like this," said the mother, "she will get merry hell."
Sahiban was to return the next day. Her visa had run out. After breakfast, the young man took the car out of the garage to drop her at the airport. Just then a friend of his arrived. He introduced Sahiban to his friend, adding: "There’s not much time, but let’s sit for a few minutes." They sat in the living room downstairs.
"Had you come for a pilgrimage of the dargahs?" the friend asked Sahiban.
"I didn’t go to a dargah, but it was a pilgrimage nevertheless," Sahiban replied.
Then, playing on her name, he asked, "And where is the Mirza of this Sahiban?"
The girl laughed and said, "Mirza must always belong to the enemy clan, and that’s true for this Sahiban’s Mirza as well." She looked up at the young man for a moment, then lowered her eyes.
On their way out, the friend asked once again, "But this time Sahiban lacks the courage to walk away with her Mirza?"
She shot back, "This Sahiban does not want her Mirza to be killed by the people of her father’s clan." She got into the car and left for the airport.
Sahiban came and vanished like a whiff of fragrance.
The next few days passed unremarkably, full of everyday chores. Then a letter came from Sahiban, addressed to the son of the family. "Thanks ever so much!" she wrote. "Seeing you, I saw many past lives, even though it is a sin for us to talk of reincarnation. But what can I do — I actually saw it all! I seemed to recall so much on seeing you…"
And she signed off with: "Exiled from you in this life — Sahiban."
There was no address on the letter. Perhaps she knew that an address would make no difference.
Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt
* Translator’s footnote: Even today, the legend of Mirza-Sahiban haunts Punjab’s folklore and songs. Mirza, like most romantic heroes, was a stranger to Sahiban’s land and belonged to a feuding clan. Sahiban eloped with him and was eager to reach his home in Danabad. But on the way, Mirza the accomplished archer insisted on stopping for the night under a tree. Sahiban’s brothers were in pursuit. Fearing that Mirza would kill her brothers, Sahiban flung his quiver up into the tree. Unarmed, Mirza was killed when the brothers caught up with them. Sahiban’s ‘betrayal’ was never forgiven, and so there were no more legendary lovers in the land of the five rivers.
Amrita Pritam, a pioneering woman writer of contemporary India, has won the Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi Awards. She lives in Delhi and edits Nagmani, a literary magazine in Punjabi