Mainao stands on her toes at the threshold of youth. She is a cheerful, attractive girl with small, twinkling eyes and rounded limbs taut with the touch of sun and rain. Her complexion is a sunburnt brown, with tints of copper. When she laughs, her small eyes crinkle and look even smaller.
The firstborn in her family, Mainao has three younger siblings. Her father teaches in a primary school about three kilometres away; her mother takes care of the household. They are not too badly off; there is enough rice in the granary, cattle in the shed and arecanut trees and betel-leaf creepers aplenty in the kitchen garden.
This is the year of Mainao’s all-important matriculation exam. She works hard at her lessons morning and evening, although she’s not very bright at studies and would much rather do the household chores instead. And how well she does them! When she swabs the courtyard, it looks so neat that you could eat off the floor! When she cuts loose the warm shawl woven with a farou-megan motif from the loom, even the pigeons on the roof seem to coo their approval: ‘Why Mainao, you’ve worked our eyes and feathers into the loom so deftly!’ When she weaves an arnai chador in the dhekia pattern, the ferns underneath the arecanut tree bow shyly, wondering, ‘Are we that pretty? O Mainao, you’ve made us look so good with your weaving!’
Mainao has long lovely hair that reaches down to her hips, black and silky and well-oiled. When she gathers it all up into a bun at the nape of her neck, it looks only a little smaller than her head. She is rather proud of her hair. She washes it with jetuka, henna leaves and hibiscus flower petals. She begs her mother for money to go trim it in the beauty parlour in the town about a kilometre away. Her parents scold her sometimes because of the preoccupation with her hair. But who can be angry with Mainao for long? She will be crestfallen for some time and then grin. Nowadays, she likes to imitate a Hindi film heroine with long hair. Like them she embellishes her hair with colourful clips. However, her mother and others who see her busy with the household chores—swabbing, weaving, cooking—are not aware what goes on in the girl’s mind. When she returns from the parlour in the town, she washes her hair with hibiscus or jetuka leaves and then with the colourful clips adorning her hair stands near the gate in front of the house. At these moments, can anyone peep into her mind? No. Secretly she plays and laughs with a young man. The image of the young man is vague; he is somewhat similar to the handsome young man who courts with his songs full of yearning and running on the sea beach with the heroine whom Mainao adores. Sometimes he seems to look like the son of the headmaster of her father’s school, who is now studying somewhere in a distant city outside Assam. When she thinks of him, she seems to be assailed by the citrus scent of a lemon flower.
The headmaster’s son had visited their house once. His father had sent some papers to her father through him. He was home on summer holiday. Mainao had served him tea and steamed tekeli pitha filled with ground sesame seed and jaggery. After he finished off three at a go, her mother had asked if he would like to have some more. He had asked for two more. Mainao’s parents had praised him a lot. After he left, the house was filled with an aroma like that of lemon flowers. He perhaps had bought the bottle of perfume in the city where he was studying, she thought. She wanted to ask him if he could bring a bottle for her as well the next time he came home. She would pay, of course! She had some money stashed away from selling three pigs, chickens and pigeons.
One day as she went to the town with her friends she tried to inhale the perfume bottles in the shop that sold cosmetics. She was disappointed; not a single bottle had that lemonish aroma. So she bought another, quite nice though, in a beautiful bottle. They had reached home late that day. Her mother was waiting anxiously at the front gate, her father cycled to the four-lane junction searching for her. Reaching home, she faced a barrage of admonishment from her parents. Wasn’t she aware of what was happening all around? The andolon was at its zenith. How many boys were like the son of the headmaster, anyway? Most of the young men had left their studies or work and joined the agitation. The boys had learnt lots of new things, even how to use the gun and ammunition. They had a lot of power now. Even the elderly in the society were scared of them. The demand for their own state had changed a lot of things. Wasn’t Mainao aware of it?
Mainao does not bother much about these things. Sometimes people come out in processions, sometimes there is a call for a bandh, sometimes the boys get into skirmishes with the police and the army personnel, but those things had been happening elsewhere, not in her village. She has heard from others that there were even shootings between the rival parties sometimes. But these meetings, processions, people piling into buses and trucks to hold public demonstrations, or shutting down roads and train lines, have been happening since long—what’s the big deal? She has grown up seeing all this. Her ears are tired of listening to the same old instructions from her parents—don’t go there, don’t do this, and so on. These things have happened and will continue happening is her philosophy. For these mundane things, why should she stop going to the bazaar if she needs threads for the loom, or when she wants to buy a pair of earrings, clips for her hair or a chain? So she gets very angry when her parents go on and on with these warnings about trouble. Isn’t there anything else to talk about except this?
Mainao is basically a happy-go-lucky girl. She hardly finds anything to be unhappy about. And especially at this time of the season, how can she remain morose? After all, Durga puja is round the corner. There is a small shrine dedicated to God Bathow in a corner of the courtyard which she swabs to a perfect red; next to it is a sewali flower tree. Now she can see its base covered with the white flowers in the morning giving out a heady smell thus heralding the autumn festival; the shops are full of colourful balloons and garlands. As in other years, in a corrugated tin shade in front of the house on the railway line, they have started making the idol of the devi. By now, Mainao has finished weaving the red dokhana. It is of the brightest red, and on it she has woven designs as in Assamese mekhela chador. The flowers in the design are yellow in colour; spattered in between the lines are butas in black and white. She already went with Binuma, Champa and Reema to the town to thread her eyebrows and trim her hair. They are her friends studying in the same class in the high school. Their group of ten to twelve girls have all grown up together and are inseparable. Binuma has bought a beautiful paat silk mekhela chador for the festival. Mainao has copied the design in her dokhana. When her friends saw it they praised Mainao to high heaven for her skill. Champa has bought a blue churidar-kameez suit with white flowers. Reema has bought a saree with bright chumki work—then there is Biju… and Konika… and Nilima. All of them have bought new clothes for the festival. Each new dress bought by one of the group called for a celebration. Mainao had wanted to buy a churidar set too. But the boys involved in the agitation had given strict instructions that girls of their community could wear only dokhanas. A pehi of Mainao, her father’s sister, who was a college student had to use a bicycle to reach the college in the town; finding the dokhana cumbersome, she had stitched a salwar-kameez set to wear to the college. In the institute the salwar suit has now become almost like a uniform for the girls. But the boys had only warned the girls of their community about wearing it. Taking a pair of scissors, a few boys had cut her aunt’s dress almost to tatters. Weeping all the way, she returned home. Her friends had used a copious number of safety pins to hold up the dress somehow. That day a high fever afflicted her aunt. It took three days for her to recover. Mainao sat next to her, regularly changing the wet handkerchief on her forehead to help keep the temperature down. Her heart went out to her aunt; such a bright student and now lying like this, she thought. Her pehi was mortally insulted at the treatment meted out to her in broad daylight and in front of so many people. These days when Mainao thinks of wearing something else other than her usual traditional dress, she instantly remembers the face of her aunt, burning with fever.
There were only three days left for the puja. Mainao had finished her puja shopping. She had gone with her friends to the town to buy a pair of earrings with red stones. The parlour was getting crowded so she had gone early to finish her beauty regimen. Then suddenly they heard that the people of their community were not allowed to participate in the Hindu puja celebration. The boys engaged in the andolon announced the ban and warned that those who defied their order would be punished. Their word was law. People these days bowed to their diktat, not unwillingly too. They reasoned that the boys were trying to offer something to the people—a dream. It would come true, won’t it?
So, what Mainao regarded as something distant and not affecting her became a reality. She would not be able to visit the pandal of the puja. Binuma, Reema and her other friends would go and she would stay back—washing, sweeping, cleaning the cattle shed. She would not be able to wear the new dress she had just woven. What was this? How could it be possible? What would she do? The devi’s idol had been put on the pedestal, the dhak drum was making a pulsating sound, the air smelt of jalebis and savoury bhujia, the colour of the balloons dazzled the eyes.
Her friends, Binuma, Reema, Champa and the gang went in a group to visit the puja venue. On their way they called her asking if she would go. She shook her head sadly. On the way back, they brought small little mementoes for her. As she took those things from her friends, her chest seemed to contract with sorrow. Seeing her like this, the eyes of her friends too filled with tears. They gave her a suggestion. After the next day, the puja would be almost over and the idol would be immersed in the river. So she could go the next day with them; who would notice her among so many girls? They would put her in the middle, hiding her and drop her back home. It was going to be a secret among themselves. Even Mainao’s parents did not get a hint of the plan.
In the afternoon, Mainao was ready and on her way to Binuma’s place. When she found her mother looking at her suspiciously, she said defensively, ‘What are you looking at? I couldn’t wear this for the puja, I might as well wear it to Binuma’s place. Her mother has just started the loom to weave a new set of clothes, she has asked me to come over to see it.’ By the time she finished saying all this, she had already reached the gate. As a precaution she told her mother that she should not worry if she got a bit late.
The girls did not wait for sunset. As soon as Mainao arrived they took her under their wings and were on the way to the pandal. A few of her friends told her to change her prominent dokhana. But Mainao remembered her aunt’s feverish face and refused to change. Someone, probably Champa said, ‘Oh, from a distance it looks like mekhela-chador. Nobody will notice.’
Mainao was drowned in the sight and sound of the balloons, smell of jalebi, the beat of the dhak and lights. Her apprehension vanished. She put a new kind of hair-band in her beautiful hair. Her hair caught the breeze and swayed in waves; she looked as if a dragonfly was jumping around.
When she returned home it never occurred to anyone that she had already been stamped a criminal. Within the span of day, Mainao became an enemy of her own people; she stood like a hillock in front of a river of revolution. Yes, she was an enemy of the people. That night itself a meeting was called by the protesters. They congregated in the courtyard of Mainao’s house; a few leaders of the movement came too. The accused Mainao was yet to change out of her red and yellow dress, the new hair-band was still adorning her hair and the generous splash of perfume stuck to her clothes. She was crying with her head between her knees and for the first time she felt the things happening around her were consuming her skin like burning charcoal.
One of the leaders passed the verdict that her hair should be snipped off. A girl who defied the diktat should be taught a lesson. Somebody brought a pair of scissors. Mainao’s weeping increased. No she would not allow it; she would not cut her precious hair. The arrogant boy who had brought the scissors was ordered to cut her hair nonetheless. The stocky man, perhaps about five years older to her, dragged Mainao to the centre of the courtyard. Her soft wrist showed the marks of his rough fingers. Mainao was not a weak girl; she tried to push against the young man. But he was stronger and held her firmly. It was not very easy to trim Mainao’s hair. The woman in the beauty parlour always brought a special pair of scissors when she visited; first she would spray water from a sprinkler and then carefully trim her silky hair. The man’s scissors were not very sharp and he had to use all his force to cut Mainao’s hair. She cried as if her heart was breaking. Binuma and her friends were watching from a distance. Now they too started weeping. Look what had happened because of their innocent fun.
Mainao’s parents watched without protesting. Their daughter was in the wrong. There were so many girls in the community, but she was the only one to go against the diktat of the leaders without informing anyone. They prayed that the matter would end with the snipping of their daughter’s hair and not go beyond to guns and shootings. People watched the man and Mainao. From a distance the pair looked as if they were lovers entangled with each other’s body. The man could cut her hair only by grabbing her close to his chest. And she was jumping like a kawoi fish rubbed with salt to smother it. With each bunch of hair snipped off, Mainao would curl like a kawoi fish on death throes. Her heartrending cry rent the air. In the tug of war between the two, the red dokhana slipped off, the beads of her red and yellow necklace tumbled down on the courtyard. Now she was only in her blouse and petticoat. The lower portion of the red blouse came off in the struggle. Her breasts in the new bloom of youth showed from beneath the torn blouse, her lovingly woven red and yellow dokhana lay crumpled on the ground and on it were scattered tufts of hair cut unevenly. An elderly man from the audience put up his hand and ordered that it was enough. He was the priest. Even the young men could not defy the stern tone of his voice. Mainao somehow held on to her blouse with its hooks coming off and ran into the house.
Now another crime had been added to Mainao’s original sin. Her virgin body had been touched by a man in public view. Nobody could deny it; all of them saw it. The young man could hold onto her only by grabbing her close to him. Her clothes were also coming off. She was seen touching his body. So another meeting was called at the temple courtyard. Mainao was summoned along with her parents. A court was held and judgment given. Mainao must marry the man who had cut her hair. Why? Because of the age-old story of Asagi and Baisagi that had been told for generations.
The sisters Asagi and Baisagi often stole from the fruit garden of handsome Chandrabao. One day he set a trap and caught both of them. He held their soft hands and freed them from the trap. But the matter did not end there. The next day darkness descended at daytime, crows cawed unnaturally; in fact everything looked abnormal. People understood that somewhere a young man and woman had committed a sin. In the meeting Chandrabao and Asagi-Baisagi confessed to the sin. What was the sin? When Chandrabao freed the young women he must have had to touch their bodies. So the judgment was given. Chandrabao must marry both the sisters. Otherwise who would marry young women who had been defiled by the touch of a stranger?
The tradition of this judgment regarding Asagi-Baisagi was followed by people of Mainao’s community. Like Chandrabao that man who had cut Mainao’s hair had to concede to the rule too. Who dared to defy a social diktat going on for hundreds of years? After all, oral history like this held their people together.
And what about Mainao? What was she thinking all this time? Her mind was absolutely blank. All she was looking for was the smell of a lemon flower. When she tried to breathe in that refreshing smell, something else, a stinking odour of sweat mixed with the moldy smell of a pair of thick jeans that hadn’t touched water for a long time, assailed her nostrils. And slowly, that awful smell travelled from her nose to her young breasts.
The man was asked to stand up. Someone with a deep voice asked Mainao to kneel down and seek the blessings of the people. But Mainao kept standing as if turned to stone; the ability to speak, walk or move the limbs seemed to abandon her.
Streams of tears flowed down her cheeks. She wiped them, but they flowed again; she wiped them again, but they flowed nevertheless.
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