“I refuse to keep an illegitimate brat from a different religion in my household!” shouted Badi Bi, pounding her teakwood cane into the floor, imperiously.
The young Zamindar looked back at her impassively. Badi Bi, as his mother was called, was a formidable woman. Clad in a pastel salwar kameez, head covered with a plain white dupatta, as befitting a family of high station, her bearing was still proud and regal. He knew she ruled the household and women of the village with an iron-clad fist. But he did not fear her. He was her only son, the most powerful man in the surrounding ten villages. With steel in his voice, he replied, “Your place is here, within my home. You are only responsible for the running of the household. You do not have the power to determine who will stay in my house. I have decided Nimmo will be brought up here. If you do not agree with my decision, then maybe I can plan your pilgrimage.”
Knowing that his mother would not dare argue with him after his ultimatum the Zamindar strode out of the courtyard, leaving Badi Bi grinding her teeth with anger.
After the departure of the Zamindar, Badi Bi turned her eyes towards the scrawny, young girl cowering in the corner, the illegitimate offspring of her son and a lady of the night. A child, whom her son, instead of leaving in the gutter where she belonged, had dared to bring into Badi Bi’s household. Exposing Badi Bi to the censor and the ridicule of the women of the village. But Badi Bi knew she was powerless. The Zamindar had all the power, while she was just a glorified housekeeper, nothing more. Badi Bi would have to accept this mongrel in her house, whether Badi Bi liked it or not.
Badi Bi walked closer to where the girl stood in the corner, her cane tapping on the stone floor, increasing the child’s heartbeat. Grabbing the child’s chin with fingers that were far from gentle, Badi Bi stared into the child’s fearful eyes. “So, he wants you in the house, is it? So be it! But, only as a servant. That will show you, you illegitimate brat, your proper place,“ said Badi Bi, before pushing the child away.
And thus, Nimmo became a part of the Zamindar’s household.
The Zamindar, after having done his duty of bringing Nimmo into the house, never looked at her again. Nimmo was left at the mercy of Badi Bi, who loathed the very sight of her. At her constant beck and call, Nimmo became Badi Bi’s unofficial servant, enduring Badi Bi’s physical and verbal abuse. On the days when Badi Bi’s abuses would become intolerable, Nimmo used to close her eyes and imagine herself far away. Dancing in a field, draped in a red phulkari she had seen the zamindar draping around her mother. In her child’s mind, the red phulkari was a symbol of the love between her mother and the zamindar. For, she argued to herself, the zamindar must have loved her mother very much. Else, why would he bring his illegitimate daughter to his home?
The only one who befriended Nimmo in the household was, Nooran. Nooran, the legitimate daughter of the zamindar, the apple of Badi Bi’s eyes. No one knew what Nooran saw in Nimmo, but despite Badi Bi’s objections, Nooran attached herself to Nimmo. Just like the night is different from the day, so were the two half-sisters. Nimmo was dark, tall and lean. Her eyes were a piercing black that seemed to look right into one’s soul. Though she used to be silent in front of Badi Bi, everyone was aware of her sharp tongue and an even sharper mind. Nooran, on the other hand, was fair, her curves plump and a tiny mole on the right cheek enhanced Nooran’s beauty, drawing attention to her delicate skin. Nooran’s eyes always shone with kindness and no one had ever heard Nooran raise her voice.
And yet, despite the differences, a strong bond developed between Nimmo and Nooran. Maybe, it was because both were motherless, or maybe because they both knew, that despite the difference in their stations, they were still sisters. The two protected and loved each other. While Nimmo protected Nooran from the harsher realities of life, Nooran used to try to protect Nimmo from Badi Bi’s harshness.
As Nimmo and Nooran grew older, the differences in their stations became more and more apparent. Nooran was given all the advantages of being the zamindar’s daughter, while Nimmo was ridiculed and abused incessantly. And then, their marriages were fixed. Nooran was to wed the son of the richest merchant of the village. Tall, good-looking and educated, he was the perfect partner for kind Nooran. “This match is made in heaven”, Badi Bi had declared happily on their engagement day, warding off the evil eye. Nimmo’s match was also fixed. Her would-be husband was a farmer whose land was owned by the merchant. Swarthy and coarse-looking, he was perfect for the dark Nimmo, Badi Bi had said, adding spitefully, “maids shouldn’t dream of princes!”
It was a drowsy summer afternoon. Taking advantage of Badi Bi’s siesta time, Nooran and Nimmo had sneaked away to play hopscotch on the terrace. They knew everyone thought them to be too old for such games, but their marriage was only a month away. They wanted to enjoy as much time together, without any restrictions, as they could before that.
“Tell me, Nimmo, what type of dupatta do you want with your wedding dress? I, personally, am leaning towards a brocade. ” Asked Nooran, panting with heat and exertion. Twirling the strands of her hair that had escaped from the plait while playing, Nimmo gave a disinterested shrug. “Who cares what I want. Badi Bi will never allow anything”, she replied.
Hearing Nimmo’s words Nooran’s face fell. She reached forward to hug Nimmo. “Don’t say like this, Nimmo. I promise I will ask Badi Bi to get whatever you want for the wedding. I am sure Badi Bi will not refuse me anything now, considering that only a few more days are left for me in this household.”
Seeing the sadness on Nooran’s face, Nimmo smiled and hugged her back. “Ok, let me tell you. I want a red phulkari dupatta. One that will make me feel like a princess!”
As the girls smiled at each other, a shout reached their ears.
“Nimmo! Nimmo! Where are you, lazybones? ” Badi Bi shouted.
Hearing Badi Bi’s shouts, the girls gasped in fear. They both ran to the courtyard before Badi Bi lost her temper completely. Gasping, Nimmo came to halt in front of Badi Bi. Trying to catch her breath, she said, “Ji, Badi Bi?”
Badi Bi’s lip curled in distaste, seeing Nimmo’s hair dishevelled after the game and the run. “You have become as tall as a tree but still have brains the size of a pea! Don’t you see the cloth merchant has come? Go, get tea for him.” Badi Bi shouted.
“Sorry, Badi Bi, Nimmo was oiling my hair, so we didn’t realise we have a guest,” Nooran spoke quietly from behind, trying to pacify her grandmother.
Seeing Nooran, Badi Bi’s face softened. Patting on the charpoy next to her, she said to Nooran, “Come, my dear, sit with me. Let us see what clothes the merchant has brought for your trousseau. You can select whatever you want!“
Nimmo quickly walked to the kitchen after throwing a look of gratitude to Nooran. If Nooran hadn’t interfered today, she would have surely received a whack from Badi Bi’s cane, and that too, in front of the cloth merchant. Yet, as Nimmo prepared the tea, she couldn’t resist feeling the pain in her heart, remembering the love on Badi Bi’s face as she talked to Nooran. If Nooran hadn’t always been so kind and loving, she could have very easily resented her, Nimmo mused to herself.
When Nimmo came back with the tea, she gasped in delight, at the sight of the rich fabrics spread out on a white sheet. It seemed as if a rainbow was strewn on the sheet. A red Phulkari dupatta kept on one side caught her eye. She touched it excitedly. It was similar to what she had in mind when she had described it to Nooran on the terrace. Seeing Nimmo’s attention fixed on the dupatta, Nooran smiled. Getting up from the charpoy, she picked the dupatta and draped it around Nimmo. Both the girls smiled at each other with pleasure.
“See, Badi Bi! How Nimmo glows in this phulkari! Can we buy this for her?” Asked Nooran.
Hearing Nooran’s words, Badi Bi’s face turned red with rage. “ Don’t be foolish, girl. Is it not enough, that we housed, fed and are now marrying this mongrel brat? She should be grateful to us, not hanker after things beyond her reach.” Angrily, Badi Bi reached over, removing the phulkari from Nimmo’s head, keeping it on the pile she had selected for Nooran. “Nooran is the one who deserves this expensive phulkari, not you. For you, this plan red chunni with golden kinnari is more than enough!” She said.
As Nooran opened her mouth to object, Badi Bi held up her hand. With increasing anger, she added, “What use does a farmer’s wife have for silks and brocade? She should be satisfied with cotton”.
Hearing Badi Bi’s words, both the girls fell silent. Their pleasure in choosing their trousseau was dampened by the hatred of an old woman.
A month later, Nimmo and Nooran got married, moving into their new households. Nimmo became Nooran’s maid in her new household, while Nimmo’s husband tilled the fields for the merchant. Nimmo was happy and satisfied, for she was far happier working as Nooran’s maid than being at Badi Bi’s beck and call. Her husband might have been coarse and rustic, but he took care of her, catering to every whim of Nimmo as if she were a fragile porcelain doll. Sometimes, when she used to see Nooran wearing the red phulkari, her fingers used to clutch the edges of her plain dupatta. But she controlled her feelings, for she knew that she and Nooran, were happy, content, and far away from the poisonous tongue of Badi Bi.
But little did Nimmo and Nooran know that an ill wind was blowing in the country. Brothers were turning against one another, and a once peaceful country was engulfed in a fire of madness that history would call partition. It was not long before those fires reached their small village too.
One day, Nimmo came running to the haveli that belonged to Nooran’s in-laws. Nooran’s in-laws had gone to another village for a wedding, and Nooran and her husband were the only ones left.
“Hurry! Nooran!” Shouted Nimmo, “Pack whatever is essential and leave the village!”
Seeing Nimmo’s fearful expression, Nooran became scared. Keeping a hand on her swollen belly, she asked, “What happened, Nimmo? Why are you asking me to leave immediately when you know the baby might come at any day!”
Gasping for breath, Nimmo narrated the conversation she had overheard in the market on the way to the haveli. A group of ruffians planned to attack the haveli at dusk. They had hatched a plan to kill everyone in the haveli and loot the riches they had heard, the merchant had hidden. Hearing Nimmo’s tale, Nooran paled. She called out to her husband in a panic. “Ae Ji! Suno! Come listen to what Nimmo is telling!” Hearing her call, Nooran’s husband came rushing in.
The colour on his face drained when Nimmo repeated her tale. Taking a steadying breath, he said, “Thank you, Nimmo, for alerting us.” Turning to Nooran, he hugged her and said, “Don’t worry dear, the new border is hardly a few kilometres from here. We will cross it over in a jiffy. Our child will be safe”. Nimmo nodded at his words before adding, “You need to hurry! Only a couple of hours are left before dusk. Leave before that. Go through my husband’s fields. He is keeping a watch and will protect you from the mob. Our religion will protect us from the mob’s fury.”
Nooran’s husband nodded, acknowledging Nimmo’s words before adding, “Will it be possible for you to make as many rotis as you can for our journey until I pack our belongings?”
As Nimmo left the room to do his bidding, she saw him take out a cloth bag and start putting Nooran’s jewels in the bag, while Nooran continued to sob with fear.
An hour flew by, and soon, Nimmo stood at the door of the haveli, bidding goodbye to Nooran and her husband. Nimmo handed a cloth bundle to Nooran. “I made the roti’s and have also packed a few pinni’s Badi Bi had sent. It should suffice till you cross the border.” Nooran took the bundle, and in turn, handed the red phulkari to Nimmo. When Nimmo resisted taking the phulkari, Nooran said, “You are my sister. You also deserve all that Badi Bi gave me. Take this phulkari as a loan from me. Come to me to return it. That will give me hope and strength that we will meet again.”
Tears streaming down their face, the two half-sisters clung to each other before Nooran’s husband cleared his throat to remind them of the fleeting time. Taking Nooran’s arm, he helped her walk down the lane as Nimmo stood at the doorway of the haveli watching, as the darkness engulfed them.
That night was the longest that Nimmo remembered. She spent it alone in Nooran’s haveli, hoping and praying. Fearing violence, all of the other servants had already fled earlier in the afternoon. As night fell, the sound of the mob came closer and then suddenly, veered away. Yet, Nimmo sat motionless, staring at the door of the haveli, the red phulkari on her lap.
Just before the first rays of the sun started lightening the horizon, heralding a new day, there was a loud banging on the door. Nimmo startled and then opened the door, gathering the red phulkari close to her chest. Her husband stood outside, a newborn cradled in his arms. Nimmo looked at the mole on the baby’s right cheek. Tears, that had stopped sometime in the night fell again. Unheeding as the red phulkari fell on the floor, Nimmo gently took the baby from her husband’s arm. She walked into the haveli’s courtyard and sat on the stool, cradling the baby close. Her husband silently followed her inside and kept a cloth bundle next to her feet. It was the same, that she had packed with rotis for Nooran’s journey. Wordlessly, she looked at her husband, his sombre eyes telling her that the unthinkable had happened. Nooran and her husband had not survived the mob’s violence. The pain threatened to choke her. She looked down at the baby in her lap. Cradling the baby closer, she promised,“ You are now mine!”
The winds changed again, the violence engulfing the country damped. Peace and prosperity returned to the village. According to the new country’s laws, Nimmo and her husband became the owners of Nooran’s abandoned haveli. They were now the richest, most influential family in the village. Nimmo’s days of drudgery as a maid were now in the past, she was now called Nimmo Bi. Nimmo’s only child was the apple of her eye. Fair, good-looking and with a mole on the cheek, the child was kind and good-humoured. Whenever Nimmo’s eyes used to fall on her child, she would glow with quiet pride. She would miss Nooran, whose duplicate shadow the child seemed to be.
But sometimes, with that pleasure, would come, a sense of foreboding. Of what would happen if the child discovered her secrets. Because hidden in Nimmo’s closet was a cloth bag full of jewels that had once adorned Nooran. And a red phulkari that Nimmo touched every day, but never dared to wear.
For the red phulkari was a constant reminder of Nimmo’s betrayal of her half-sister. When Nimmo had deliberately sent Nooran to the fields where she knew the mob was waiting.
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