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Naale (Tomorrow) MAG
“Vada, vada, vadee, vada! Fresh vadas, only fifty paisa each!”
The cacophony of the train echoes across the cramped compartment, clogging the moist air with an overwhelming symphony of sounds. The chugging of the engine blends seamlessly with raspy shouts from sweat-stained, hoarse-voiced vendors desperate to earn a few rupees. Outside the rusty iron bars on the glassless window, it's a stifling January afternoon, the Indian sun a ball of flame that glitters and dances in the cloudless gray sky. Throngs of fatigued commuters, all with eyebrows furrowed into permanent ridges and cheekbones caked with city smut, make their way about the crowded station. Their chappal-clad feet kick up clouds of dust as they travel the same route they have walked a thousand times.
Amidst the grime of the large intercity train, a single face stands out from the weary horde. A girl, not quite seventeen, sits demurely in the corner of the compartment. A modest shawl drapes her tightly pinned hair, and a twinkling array of bangles bite into her hennaed wrists, which are – as is proper – placed primly in her lap.
She is the archetypal young bride, timid and anxious. But, unlike the rest of the tired passengers who slam their luggage and sit with a heavy sigh, there's a certain glint in her eyes, a lilt to her voice, and a distinct curve to her smile. She's craning her head to see as far as she can beyond the bars of the tiny window. Her eyes laugh in childlike delight whenever a puff of smoke emitted from the engine blows into her face. Unconsciously, her fingers tug at the embroidered edges of her silk wedding sari; her impatient fidgeting belies the fact that, despite having left her home, her family, and her life behind to marry a stranger she's met only once, she's ecstatic about the prospect of finally riding a train.
Her smile widens with naive glee as, after a lurching jolt, the wheels of the metal giant slowly begin to creep forward, crawling out of the station but hurtling her into her new life without so much as a backwards glance. Slowly the view starts to shift; the musty railway station morphs into the lush greenery of rural Kerala, and her heart clenches in her chest. She watches as the familiar lanes of her childhood speed by, abandoned by the cruel turns of the train into the heart of Bhilai, the place she must now call home.
Although she wills herself not to cry, she's embarrassed to feel hot tears clinging to her lashes. They track rivulets of watery kajal down her cheeks before she remembers to wipe them away. No sense weeping – this is an adventure!
A lull settles over the sullen passengers as, one by one, faint from the earlier pandemonium, almost all of them drift into sleep. She leans her head against the rubbery seat cushion and feels her eyelids flutter shut. With all the excitement of her wedding day and her travels, she hasn't allowed exhaustion to catch up with her. Now, though, like static fizz in a woolen dupatta, fatigue sticks to her, pricking and jabbing. The ghosts of yesterday's chores linger in the hollows of her bones, but she refuses to succumb to sleep's siren call, instead forcing herself to stay alert and take in the very first moments of her second birth.
The dazzling white light of noon has melted into a soft, burnished gold, with the dying veins of sun riddling through the sky like seams in an embroidery cushion. The garish blue of the sky has been replaced by a soft plum color, the shade of pink lips stained with the juice of pomegranate seeds. For some reason, everything seems more beautiful today.
As day slips into night and blackness obscures the view from the window, she turns her gaze to the man sitting across from her, and her smile fades. Her husband. The person with whom she will spend the rest of her life. The perfect stranger with whom, after the traditional whirlwind engagement and marriage, she has yet to have a proper conversation.
He is reading, a pair of oversized spectacles perched on his crooked nose. Feeling her scrutiny, he looks up and gives her a slight smile of acknowledgment. He's a dignified man, ten years her senior, with penetrating eyes and a high brow – a sign of intellect, her mother always said. A good man, her father had told her. A good match.
She has no way of knowing what the future holds, except that he is it. He is her future.
A heaviness has descended upon her; her previous lightheartedness is forgotten. The days have finally caught up with her, and the memories she's neglected to dwell upon now threaten to inundate her.
Closing her eyes, she remembers. She had been babysitting her cousins – three little devils, two boys and one girl, each with identical puffs of coarse hair and wide eyes that glint with mischief. She was laughing with them, yelling with them, drawing in the dust with sticks snapped from the branches of a teak tree, when her older, married sister had rushed outside, her sari fluttering behind her. Her usually smooth bun had wisps of frizz spilling from the edges, and her eyes sparked with consternation, but her voice was urgent as she said, “Get up, quickly. You have guests. Go serve the chai.”
Confused but obedient, the girl had shaken the loose soil from her skirt, and dutifully poured cups of spicy tea with a hand she willed not to shake for the strange family in her living room.
That was that, and a rishta was planned before she knew it. The time between her engagement and her marriage was nothing more than a blur of noise and color; she remembered it as a dreamlike haze. The wedding had been small – frugal, like all things were – but she was too excited to care. With all eyes on her for the first time in her life (she'd grown up the youngest in a family of seven boys and six girls), she felt like an adult, a woman, beautiful in her new silk sari, ornamented with heavy, dangling earrings, a plated necklace, and a simple golden band that now seemed to burn on her finger.
Opening her eyes, she looks down at the hand she outstretches before her, the hand on which the ring sits. She sighs and rubs it pensively.
Tomorrow will be like the ring, she decides as the train steadily plows forward. Shiny, brand new, and filled with possibilities.
Tilting her head back against the her seat, she begins to pray. The smile has returned to her face.