Inside the dimly lit tent-like dwelling Tannu called home, night had descended like a hawk, enveloping everything in a dark, foreboding cloak. Her feet twitched and kicked petulantly at the sheets, pushing her toe into that sweet space between the thin sheet and the strings of the charpoy where it was just a little bit cooler. It promised to be a long night. Sleep was once again miles from her, her senses strangely alert to the sights and sounds surrounding her.
"Tannu," she said to herself firmly. "Sleep! Let the gentle hand of the night rock you into oblivion." Next to her the rhythmic snoring of the inert figure on the charpoy prevented that from happening. She glanced at the glistening, oil-massaged body of Raja and watched the rise and fall of his chest in awe.
Across the bed a thin curtain separated the sleeping silhouette of his widowed mother from them. Had she been aware of their nightly tryst, Tannu wondered? Bodies wrapped in passion, sounds muffled and yet brazenly audible--the price to pay when living in a 16 foot by 10 foot dwelling, the framework of their lives. Perhaps that nocturnal event would bear some fruition. Her bodily rhythm was so perfectly aligned with the moon. Even when nothing in life made sense, her body obeyed the calling.
The new moon always promised the crimson flow like clockwork. And when the waxing crescent became the full moon, Amma said that was her time--the moment when God burst the seed within a woman's body to make her fertile. Yet Tannu's body failed month after month to fill her insides with the cherished fruit. Unlike her friends in the neighborhood, her stomach didn't swell with the promised hope of a new life.
Amma tried all the totems and tricks known to her and her generation--expensive and rare honey to sip before bed, burfis of almond and golden brown gur, the date palm sugar, the amulet around Tannu's neck that Wali Baba down the street had prepared for her by fasting for seven days. Amma hoped that through some mystifying alchemy, she could influence the arrival of her elusive grandchild--grandson, to be precise, according to her incessant referrals.
Tannu slid her hand underneath her head and studied a tear on the fabric of the hut, moonlight shimmering through it in a promising glow. What lies beyond, she wondered? She had never ventured out at midnight, at least not intentionally. Like a child who has never tasted mango, its ripe lusciousness utterly meaningless to her, the yellow fragrant peelings a feast for the senses that cannot even come alive in the imagination. Dewy soft sleep cascaded over her, and she thankfully gave in to the sensation.
She dreamed she was an eagle soaring high, wings outstretched to embrace the amber sky, before feeling the sudden sensation of being pulled back to Earth. She found to her astonishment a rope tied around her ankle that was forcing her back down in a speeding frenzy.
She woke with a start. Amma was shaking her. "Tannu, bahu, wake up!" Amma was saying. "I am leaving for work. Cook dal curry today. There is enough rice from yesterday for Raja."
Tannu turned around and went right back to sleep. Rice, fluffy white grains that she had not tasted in ages. Her mouth watered at the thought of the familiar taste. In their household, only Raja could partake of such luxury. Money was short. That was the reason Amma had to go out and wash other people's clothes and dirty dishes. Tannu was not permitted to venture outdoors in pursuit of work because she was the prized cow, an incubator for a prospective offspring that any outside influence could potentially damage. Whenever Tannu objected, Amma was quick to point out how Radha, Manisha's bahu, lost her baby when she was washing clothes in someone's home. The baby just slipped out of her, bloodied bag and all, and Radha hadn't even known she was with child.
"I would die if a thing like that happened to Raja's son," Amma said, biting her lower lip in apprehension and gazing at Tannu's flat stomach. She was again referring to the would-be grandchild as a boy. Tannu felt laughter bubbling inside her but faced her with a straight face as Amma concluded, "If Wali Baba's talisman doesn't work, we will have to go to Shah Daullah's shrine."
Tannu breathed in sharply. "What? I will not go to that shrine, ever!" she cried. Amma slapped her across her face. "Don't you talk to me like that, you insolent, unproductive woman! Don't invoke God's wrath by being callous and shameless. If my first grandchild is destined to be a chuwa in the shrine, He will smile upon us and bestow another offspring on you soon after."
Tannu doubled over in pain and felt the rising of a welt where Amma's ring had grazed her cheek. Hot anger washed over her. Shah Daullah's shrine was the place where people desperate to have offspring went to pray to be fruitful. According to a legend dating back hundreds of years, the wish for offspring is granted at a price--the first child born out of that prayer has to be handed over to the shrine caretakers as a sign of respect. There was another dark side to the story. All the children left at the shrine grow up with abnormalities and are dubbed the "rat-children," or chuwas, by votaries of the shrine because their facial features starkly resemble that of a rodent.
Tannu had heard whispers, and yes, there had been talk that the children were not born deformed but that in a cruel and twisted exercise in manipulation, their soft and underdeveloped skulls are strapped with a metal apparatus in infancy so that the normal growth of their heads is constrained, rendering them physically handicapped and mentally challenged. Nearly all the children offered to the shrine or those claiming to represent it end up on the streets of Gujrat as beggars. It had proved to be a lucrative trade for their keepers. The thought sent chills down Tannu's spine. Could she give up her offspring to those wolves? Never!
The locals believe it is bad luck to ignore the chuwas, so when they catch sight of one, they quickly fill their bowl with alms. They scared Tannu when she was little with their shockingly small heads, squashed, compressed features, giant ears bizarrely out of proportion to their heads, foamy spittle coming from their mouths, and the sounds, those horrible wailing sounds as if they were trapped inside their hideous bodies and wanted out. Whenever she came across one, she ran in the other direction, screaming and wailing. Her mother always brought her back, insisting that she take their blessings.
"Your innermost desires will come true," her mother would say. "The chuwas have special powers. They are cherished by God."
The afternoon sun blazed down on Tannu's dark head as she hastily kneaded the wheat dough for chapattis. It was almost time for Amma to arrive home. She scared Tannu lately. The kind eyes she was used to seeing had changed overnight into determined, heartless ones; her lips had taken on a new shape in their pursed state, and her voice was more forceful. It all meant the coming of a storm, black and violent, on their household, and Tannu knew she could be crushed beneath its frenzied ferocity.
The air was alive with the scents and sounds of her cooking, and it was then that she saw him. It wasn't that she was seeing him for the first time-he lived down the gali-but it was the first time she had seen anyone look at her so enthralled. He was the young milkman who delivered in the neighborhood. His lean body was balanced against his bicycle, an expression of deep consternation and veneration on his face. Tannu ran a sweaty hand over her brow and looked straight at him brashly. She saw that he switched his position and straightened and was now looking all around him, embarrassed, as if caught in a punishable act.
There was enough wood to last a day, but water was depleting in the pot. Tannu decided she would have to get the water to wash the dishes and use for the evening meal. Usually it was a morning chore, but the hours had slipped by quickly. Tannu donned her headgear to support the round clay matka on her head and set out toward the village well. Ten steps away from her hut, she had an eerie sense of being followed, and without looking back she knew who it was. She sashayed up the empty road, swinging her hips in false vanity, her heart racing to a feverish pitch, her walk slowing to a turtle-like pace. Inside Tannu's mind there was turmoil. "Oh body!" she chided herself. "Do not betray me now. Why does a stranger's eyes cause you to behave so wantonly?"
Tannu felt a familiar trickling between her legs. Oh, the wretched day had arrived. Perhaps it was nature's way to talk some sense into her. Alas, Wali Baba's amulet had failed. Determined to outrun her benign stalker, she hurried her pace to reach the well and quickly filled the matka, spilling most of it on the ground in her hurry. The late afternoon sun thirstily drank up the remains.
Amma was already home, setting food for Raja who for once had come home early and not in a drunken stupor at midnight. Tannu sat the matka down in the corner as Amma eyed her suspiciously. "What took you so long? The dal isn't even cooked properly. What did you do all day?" Her barrage of questions cut through the humid air.
Tannu ignored her and removed her headgear. Silently she sat down beside Raja and eyed his plate of rice longingly. She felt all eyes upon her as she broke a piece of chapatti and chewed it. Amma was right; the lentils were undercooked. It's all his fault... Her thoughts trailed off, and Amma's voice brought her to the present.
"It's the full moon, Tannu. What news do you have for us?"
Tannu breathed in sharply. Raja looked away embarrassed. Amma's face took on an expression of a combatant with weapons drawn.
"Not good," Tannu replied in a small voice.
"Then it's decided. Tomorrow we go to Shah Daullah's shrine." Amma's words cut through her insides like shards of glass, and Tannu felt herself slipping as hot tears pricked her eyes. She was vaguely aware of Raja arguing with his mother, but it was as if she were watching a movie; in her acute sense of panic and fear, she had already detached herself from them.
How did the legend of Shah Daullah begin? As a child, Tannu asked her mother that one day and was told a fascinating tale.
It all started in the early sixteenth century with a pious saint, Shah Daullah, who was a savior of handicapped children. Upon his death in 1579, his shrine became a sanctuary for such children. At a cruel point in history, it had all become twisted. Some criminal types who saw profit in people's anguish started a vicious cycle of exploitation of the masses. Children's natural physiques were tampered with to make them into rat children. When a cry ensued, it was quickly diffused; too many ill-minded folks were too deeply involved to stop the sacrilege.
It was just another day at the Sufi Shrine of Shah Daullah.
In the Punjab province stretching out toward the River Chenab lies the city of Gujrat and in its midst, the shrine, surrounded by peddlers, hawkers, and low-slung shops, a confined space that at once explodes with the smell of stale spices and crushed rose petals. For 300 years, women who are unable to have children have visited the shrine. They believe that praying there and being touched by a chuwa will make them fertile.
Before they even reached the gate, Tannu heard a loud wail competing with the deafening din of the everyday trade that made her stop in her tracks. Something icy clutched at her heart. It was a chuwa, gatekeeper of a shrine to well-being and productiveness, her large pointy ears grotesque on her shrunken, shaved head. A caged dove was beside her, a restless inmate.
Tannu looked the other way as she bent in front of the chuwa to seek blessing, her body tight from revulsion and panic. Amma's hand forcefully pushed her a little closer to the chuwa. All of Tannu's instincts directed her to flee, but the strong hold of Amma on the small of her back kept her from escaping. The chuwa pawed at her clumsily and let out a cry that sounded like that of a caged animal.
Amma's firm hand on Tannu's back pushed her inside the shrine. They took their shoes off at the doorstep and headed in through the archway. Inside, the air was thick and alive with the scent of crushed rose petals and incense, perhaps for the annihilation of all the unpleasant and noxious smells, tears, and woe. Tannu could sense the agony in the air. There were women like her, their faces hidden by veils underneath a pulsating desire to invoke the favor of the gods of fruitfulness, yet Tannu felt none of the desperation they carried. She had decided she did not want a child if a chuwa was her fate. There was a strange calm inside her. She knew what she would pray for. She kneeled to kiss the grave and closed her eyes in prayer.
Outside a woman was wailing; her veil was on the ground, her hair disheveled. Her husband had snatched a white bundle from her arms. Shocked, Tannu realized that it was a baby. The man was handing the infant to the shrine caretaker.
"The child belongs to Shah Daullah," the man was saying, his eyes ablaze, warding off his wife's persistent hand that stretched out for her baby. "He is a messenger of Shah Massat. God's wrath would be upon us if we do not fulfill our promise."
Tannu's night was restless again. The hot weather had turned into a scorching mess. As sleep caught up with her, her amulet thread lay forgotten at the end of her bed, untied. Outside the night mist covered their home in a transparent cloak. The air was heavy with anticipation, heat, and yearning.
She woke up with a jolt. What was that cry? It sounded like a wolf. She looked around in confusion. Where was that familiar tear on the fabric of the hut that she looked at every night? Where was she? It was too dark to tell. She turned around to ask Raja and nearly screamed. She clapped a hand to her mouth in shock.
It wasn't Raja who was next to her.
When her eyes got accustomed to the dark, she was able to make out his silhouette. The face was familiar: straight nose, lips curled as if on the verge of a smile, eyes shut in a restful sleep. She knew the face well; it belonged to the one who made her forget her marriage vows and enveloped her in wistful longing.
How did she get here? Tannu's mind screamed, her heart racing. What has she done? Her hands fumbled blindly for her clothes. She hastily tied the strings of her long shirt, feeling the air touch her naked limbs invasively. Her skirt was pinned underneath his body. She pulled at it slowly, slipped off the charpoy, and ran outside, tying it around her middle.
Outside the air had grown moist; the rustle of the palm trees was the only thing alive. She lunged at the sky in rage at the final betrayal of her body. She had lost it all. Her unconscious desires had led her to the ultimate sin. She had failed all who trusted her. Hot tears that formed in her eyes turned cool as they cascaded down her cheeks. There was a catch in her throat that wouldn't go away. She felt a maggot climb up her leg, but she didn't push it away. Her only goal was to find the familiar sight of her dwelling.
Inside her home, the inhabitants were fast asleep. Tannu's midnight venture had not affected their slumber, and she sank onto the charpoy thankfully.
The rest of the night gave her not a wink of peace. It was the beginning of an apocalypse. Overnight cracks had started to form on the foundation of her life.
She wasn't well for days afterwards. Fever raged inside her as if punishing her for her deed. Or was it guilt that gnawed at her existence? After fifteen days of the torturous illness, it subsided almost like a storm that had never occurred.
It was also the day of the full moon and Amma's monthly inquisition. Surprisingly, Tannu's biological clock had failed, and after three days there was even a faint smile on Amma's face and hushed whispers of what was to come. Tannu remained impervious to her festive mood. Inside her were questions that had no answers, and to ask them aloud would be to let gangrene take over her flesh.
"The good Lord has smiled upon us," Amma declared after her daily prayer one day and lifted her hands high in the air, her eyes misty. "The door has opened for us. Your next child will be a boy. I know it. I just have this feeling in my heart."
Tannu looked away. She knew what her words implied, but she vowed to be strong for her child. Days went by, and the life within Tannu blossomed. There were no preparations for the child. No jhoola to rock the baby to sleep, no little clothes to cover the little frame, not even a rattle or jhunjhun to play with. Tannu knew what that meant. The fate of her unborn child was sealed.
Near the horizon of her existence, she saw him as well, the man whose name she did not even know, the father of her unborn child, the person who was always there in her sight, watching her flower, her once lithe body now heavy with the promise of Heaven's bounty, a smile that he had never witnessed before on her face. She never felt any anger toward him. There was no remorse in her heart anymore.
Does he know that the life she carried within her was also partly his, Tannu wondered? A part of Tannu didn't want him to know. She was possessive about this new life that breathed inside her.
She had a game plan. When days rolled into weeks and weeks into months and fall took over in its orange and brown splendor, Tannu started preparing for her journey. There was a new song to her lips, a new strength in her demeanor, her gait that of a person on a mission, and finally, six moons later, she was ready to embark on her expedition.
She set out at midnight when the tired world had fallen in its usual comatose state. The rustle of the palm trees was all around her as the night breeze wantonly caressed her face. Tannu's garment fluttered treacherously in the dark; she felt the frail, crackling remains of dead leaves collapse beneath her feet. Somewhere a rooster mistakenly gave out the morning call, perhaps awakened by motion, and a barn owl screeched in response. Shuddering, she brought her headcover closer to her face, and when she looked down again, there were two shadows on the ground instead of one. She looked up to face her companion who had fallen in step with her and smiled. She was no stranger to his reassuring presence. If he were the cause of her predicament, perhaps he wanted also to be her savior.
Behind her she could hear the foundations of her old world crack and disintegrate, but she did not look back. She knew that when it was over what really mattered would have been salvaged. Perhaps in her escape she had only switched one kind of paucity for another, but she was sure of one thing-it would be a state in which her child would finally have a place to call home.