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JANGLE BOOTI (THE WILD FLOWER)

by Amrita Pritam

Angoori was the name of the very new wife of the very old servant of the
neighbours of my neighbours. One reason for her being new was that she was
his second wife. In Punjabi, they call a man who marries a second time duhaju.
Etymologically, a man who has entered a second life — a second life in
marriage. The fact that Angoori was in her first life in the marriage made her
new. It was not even a year since she had been given away as a bride, so she
was still new.

Some five years ago, when Parbhati had gone home to perform the last rites of
his first wife, Angoori’s father had come forward and wrung dry his parna, the
towel hung over his shoulder. Now to tell you the truth, no man’s parna is
drenched with the tears shed for his wife. In fact, it is soaked in water during
the last rituals. But if a father comes forward and wrings the parna of the
bereaved husband, he is saying: “I give my daughter in place of the woman
who has passed away. There is no need for you to weep any more. See, I
have dried your towel.” It is a simple rural custom which replaces the old with
the new.

This was how Parbhati was married to Angoori. But Angoori was too young
and her mother was bed-ridden with arthritis, so the ceremony of giving her
away as a bride was delayed. One by one, five years passed and the time
came for Angoori to be given away to Parbhati. He told his employers that
either he would bring his wife to the city or he would move back to the village.
The employers were not willing to feed two persons from their kitchen. But
when Parbhati told them that Angoori would make her own little kitchen by the
servants’ quarters and cook her own food, they agreed to let her stay. So
Angoori came to the city.

For a few days, Angoori kept her face veiled even from the women of the
colony. But after some time, the veil was lifted. Walking about with her silver
anklets jingling, Angoori became quite popular. The jingle of her anklets was
matched by the jingle of her laughter. She would spend most of the day in her
quarters but when she came our, laughter seemed to jingle at her feet.
“What is this you are wearing, Angoori?”
“This is the anklet for my foot.”
“What is this on your toes?”
“These are my bicchia, my toe-rings.”
“What’s this on our arm?”
“Oh, this is my amulet.”
“What is this that you wear on your forehead?”
“We call it albind.”
“Why aren’t you wearing something on your waist today?”
“Oh! my tagdhi (waistband) is too heavy. But I will wear it tomorrow. Today, I
am not wearing my choker either. The chain broke. I’ll get it repaired tomorrow
at the bazaar. I had a nose-ring too. It was quite big. But my mother-in-law kept
it.”

Angoori would wear her silver jewellery with aplomb and show them one by
one, very happily.

When the season changed, Angoori found her quarters too suffocating. She
would come and sit right outside my house. There’s a tall neem tree and an old
well. No one in the colony used the well, but the labourers working on the road
fetched water from it. They spilled water all about, and it was cool.
“What are you reading, Bibiji?” Angoori asked me one day as I sat under the
tree.
“Do you want to read?” I asked her.
“I don’t know how to read.”
“Why don’t you learn?”
“No.”
“Why?”
“It is a sin for a woman to read.”
“Is it no sin for a man?”
“No, it is not.”
“Who told you all this?”
“I know it.”
“Then am I committing a sin by reading?”
“No it is not a sin for a woman of the city. But it is a sin for a village woman.”

I laughed, and so did Angoori. She had no doubts about what she had heard
and learned, so I did not say anything to her. If she can laugh and be happy
with her own values, so be it.

I would look at her laughing face. Her body was dark, her flesh like well
kneaded dough. They say a woman is like a ball of dough. But sometimes the
dough is loose and difficult to roll into the round shape of a roti. Sometimes the
dough is stale and impossible to roll out. But there is a sort of woman whose
flesh is taut and well toned. One can roll out not just rotis but even puris. I
looked at Angoori’s face, her breasts and her arms. Her flesh was tightly
kneaded. I had seen her Parbhati too. He was short and withered. He certainly
did not deserve to eat such well-kneaded dough... and I laughed at myself for
comparing flesh to dough.

I would ask her about her village. Talking of her parents, her brothers and
sisters and the green fields, I asked her one day: “Angoori, what’s marriage
like in your village?”
“When the girl is small, some five years old, she worships someone’s feet.”
“How does she worship the feet?”
“Well, she does not do it. Her father goes and does it. He takes a platter full of
flowers and some money and puts it before the man.”
“This means the father is worshipping his feet. Where does the girl come in?”
“The father does it on behalf of the girl.”
“But the girl hasn’t even seen the man.”
“Girls don’t see the man.”
“A girl does not see the man she is going to marry?”
“No.”
“No girl, ever?”
“No.” But after giving it some thought, Angoori added, “The girls who are in
love see him.”
“Do girls in your village fall in love?”
“Very few.”
“Isn’t it a sin for a girl to love?”
“It is a sin, a very grave sin,” Angoori said at once.
“Why do they sin?”
“Well... what happens is that when a man feeds something to a girl, she falls in
love.”
“What does he feed her?”
“It is a wildflower. He conceals it in a sweet or a paan and makes the girl eat it.
Then she likes him — only him, and nothing else in the world.”"
“Really!”
“I know it. I have seen it with my own eyes.”
“What have you seen?”
“I had a friend. She was just a little taller than me.”
“Then?”
“What then? She lost her mind over him. She eloped with him to the city.”
“How do you know that your friend was fed a wildflower?”
“He had put that flower in barfi. What else? She wouldn’t have left her parents
otherwise. He used to bring many things for her. He would bring a sari from the
city, glass bangles, a bead necklace...”
“But these are gifts. How do you know that he fed her with a wildflower?”
“If he hadn’t fed her, why did she fall in love with him?”
“One can fall in love just like that.”
“No, it can’t be. One cannot love just like that — it hurts the parents.”
“Have you seen that wildflower?”
“No, I have never seen it. It has to be brought from far away. Then it has to be
hidden in a sweet or a paan. When I was still a child, my mother had warned
me not to take a sweet from any man.”
“You did well by not eating sweets given by any old man. Why did your friend
eat it?”

“She will have to pay for her sin.” Angoori said this, but then her love for her
friend made her somewhat compassionate. With a sad face she said, “She had
simply gone crazy, poor girl. She would not comb her hair. She would wake up
in the middle of the night and sing.”

“What did she sing of?”


“I don’t know. Whoever tastes the wildflower sings a lot, and weeps a lot too.”
Since the narrative had travelled from singing to weeping, I did not question
her any further.

Soon, very soon, something changed. One day she came up quietly and sat by
my side under the neem tree. Earlier, her anklets would announce her arrival
from twenty yards away. But today, there was silence. I lifted my head from the
book and asked her, “What’s the matter, Angoori?”
“Teach me how to write my name.”
“Do you want to write a letter to someone?”
Angoori did not reply. Her eyes were vacant.
It was mid-day. I left Angoori under the neem tree and came home. When I
went out again in the evening, Angoori was still sitting under the tree. She was
crouching. The nip in the evening air was sending soft shivers down her body.

I was standing behind her. There was a song on her lips which sounded like a
long sob.
“Meri mundri mein lago naginva
Ho bairi kaise kaatoon jobanva”
(“My ring is studded with a stone, Accursed one, what will become of my
youth?”)
Angoori heard my footsteps. She turned around, saw me and shut her song in
her lips. “You sing very well, Angoori.”

It was so apparent. With an effort of the will, Angoori had stopped the tears in
her eyes and had put a tremulous laugh on her lips. “I don’t know how to sing.”
“You know…”
“This was nothing...”
“Your friend used to sing?”
“I had heard this song from my friend.”
“Then sing for me.”
“Oh, it’s just a counting of the seasons. It is cold for four months, hot for four
months and for four months it rains...” “Not like this. Why don’t you sing it?”
Angoori was counting the seasons as though she must account for the twelve
months of the year.

“Char mahine raaja thandi hovat hai


Thar thar kaampe karejva
Char mahine raaja barkha hovat hai
Thar thar kaampe badarva.”
“Angoori!”

Angoori stared at me with vacant eyes. I wanted to put my hand on her


shoulder and ask, “Dear girl, have you gone and tasted the wild flower?” I did
put my hand on her shoulder, but I said, “Have you had any food?”

“Food?” Angoori asked strangely. I felt her body tremble under my hand. It was
as though the song she had just sung with its trembling of the clouds in the
rains, the trembling of the summer wind and the trembling of the heart in winter,
the very song was trembling through her body.

I knew that Angoori used to cook her own food while Parbhati ate in the
master’s house. I asked her again, “Have you cooked anything today?”
“No, not yet.”
“Did you cook in the morning? Have you had tea?”
“Tea? There was no milk today.”
“Why was there no milk today?”
“I don’t buy milk...”
“Don’t you drink tea every day?”
“I do.”
“Then what happened today?
“That Ram Tara brings the milk…”

Ram Tara was the chowkidar of our colony. We all contributed to his salary. He
walked the streets all night and would be very tired in the morning. I recalled
that until Angoori came to live here, he would drop in at one house or the other
for a cup of tea. Then he would put his cot by the well and sleep through the
day. After Angoori came, he started buying a little milk every day from the
milkman. Angoori would put a pot of tea on her chulah and she, Parbhati and
Ram Tara would sit around it, sipping their tea.

I also remembered that Ram Tara had not been around for three days. He was
on leave — he had gone to his village.

A pained laugh came to my lips and I asked her, “Angoori! You haven’t had tea
for three days!”
She could not speak. She just shook her head.

“Have you not eaten anything?” She couldn’t speak again. But it was apparent
that even if she had, it amounted to nothing.

I recalled Ram Tara. A quick grace, soft features and eyes that smiled shyly.
He also spoke very well.
“Angoori?”
“Yes.”
“Have you gone and eaten the wildflower?”

Tears started flowing down her face, soaking her cheeks and then her lips.
Even the words which escaped her mouth were wet, “I swear I never took a
sweet from his hands. Nor a paan. Only tea... was it mixed in the tea...?”
Angoori could speak no further. Her voice was drowned in her tears.

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