The dust settled. Soon it was time for the scorching rays of the sun to bid goodbye to the seething people. June was a terrible month, the smoldering heat made the days unbearable. Evenings were no respite either, as that was the time when Mother Earth let out the heat to cool her sweltering bosom. It wasn’t the summer alone. Balram knew in his heart of hearts……the simmering rebellion wasn’t going to stay subdued for long. It was just a matter of time before the volcano erupted.
Balram, a brawny, robust youngster, whose muscles would flex at the slightest provocation. Being the star performer in rural sports, he was idolized by many. Whether bullock cart racing or wrestling, he was always a winner. The family’s insistence that her join the British army was a shocker and he had strongly resisted this decision.
“Your taut, barrel-chested body and energy of a lion will be acknowledged only in the red army”, his father had opined with evident pride. (Red Army was the commonly used local phrase for the British army.)
“But Father…..I want to follow the revolutionaries.” “Are you blind to the pillage our motherland is being subjected to?” Balram’s face flushed red, not in embarrassment but in anger!
It was the great drought that hit Lakhimpur which changed the course of Balram’s life. The rain deprived earth could no longer bear the pain and soon deep, hard cracks took over. Mother Earth resembled the deep, hard wrinkles on an aged face as the pain of the parched expanse struck each heart. Village folk wandered far and beyond in search of survival….food, water and livelihood. The expanding drought soon seemed like a black hole, sucking everything into its depth.
For Balram, it was a metaphorical moment as he stood in the army enrolment queue. His conscience pricking him for taking a step back from his dream.
During this period when loyalties of the Indian masses were divided not just by caste and creed but also by envy and greed, it was the British who took advantage and benefitted in every possible way. There were apprehensive rulers who went out of their way, oblivious of their own united potential to please the British Raj in many ways. From a deluge of gifts including heirloom jewellery, priceless furniture to land royalties and taxes, the local commanders were spoilt hard for choice. One such perk was the ‘Begum Ki Kothi’, a licensed brothel in the Lakhimpur cantonment area. It was housed in an old palace of the Diwan of the state with complete exclusivity for the British soldiers. Business flourished but much against the wishes of the local populace. It was always a bone of contention amidst the villagers and the cantonment officials. The villagers felt many young women were forced into the trade by the lure of money.
However not everything that glitters is gold and so was Rubina, a gem which was in the wrong custody. Connivingly being sold off by her Uncles to the Kothi, she had practically grown up there. But as she gained wisdom, her heart remained detached from this deceitful trade. She longed for a life of respect and learning. The only silver lining was that she had learned to read from the many prints that were trashed in the kothi. She was one of those who closely followed the ‘revolutionaries in their freedom movement.
The Heart’s Calling
“Come on Rubina”, “you are not being offered the appointment of a school teacher. Leave the newspaper and come down to buy some bangles and dresses,” called out Begum Ji, herself. Having grown up in her care, Begum Ji held a soft corner for her, showering all maternal love and care.
Frowning Rubina walked down the stairway,
“I have no interest in these material objects.”
“What are you talking girl?” Begum was furious. “This is an important element of our profession.”
Rubina looked away nonchalantly.
Thanks to the exclusivity of British soldiers, news of the Indian freedom struggle gaining momentum reached the Kothi at a fast pace. Rubina, a keen listener was quick to catch all such news. Thankfully her docile and submissive nature held back Begum Ji from offering her to any of the customers.
“I am being patient,” she remarked affectionately. “You are worth someone special.”
Rubina crossed her fingers.
Her exemplary dance skills were the cynosure of many eyes in the Kothi. The moment she buckled up her ‘Ghungroo’ (heavy anklets for dancing), those in presence would be spellbound. Her fame spread as a dancer of repute. Begum Ji did not regret investing in a good teacher for her.
“It’s good your dance is fetching you fame,” she smiled “It might just save you from the murkier waters.” Her own eyes brimmed over, thinking of the past.
One beautiful evening Rubina accompanied by Begum Ji and Zulfiqar, the guards were returning from the garrison commander’s personal quarters after a rendition of classical dance. The night was pleasant and livened up by the sweet fragrance of the ‘Raat ki Rani’ (Night blooming jasmine).
“Begum Ji, I prefer dancing in the Kothi,” Rubina said. “I dislike the mingling of intoxication with my dance. It disturbs the purity of this form.”
Zulfiqar let out a big laugh, “Rubina….who looks at the dance. They are so drunk that all they see is a female form, dressed to please, swirling around them.”
Rubina bore a stoned look. “That is why I don’t want to go there anymore.” Her response was firm.
Begum was quick to respond, “You can’t behave so adamantly.” “The question isn’t about what you like or not! This is our livelihood.
“But Begum Ji…what I….,” Rubina tried to interject.
“What means what?” Begum was losing her cool. “My soft corner for you is making you lose track of your own worth.”
Zulfiqar had to chip in before Begum Ji’s notorious temper kicked in.
“Begum Ji, she is a child. Let it go. We all know you mean well.”
This was the seal on the conversation. Thereafter the rest of the Tonga (horse carriage) journey was completed in silence.
Rubina was the first to jump out as soon as the Tonga halted.
“Salam”, she gestured towards Begum, who still wore a glum look.
Rushing inside the gate, she knocked into a drunk, garrulous British officer making his way out of the Kothi. Before Rubina could balance herself, his hands lecherously moved on her body. With a mouth reeking of cheap country liquor, he forced himself onto her, pressing her frail body against the iron gates. Unable to bear the hurt, Rubina began screaming, “Help, Help”. Zulfiqar was nowhere in sight so it was Begum Ji who rushed towards Rubina. With folded hands she whimpered, “Sahib, don’t force yourself. She is a child.” Though the Kothi followed strict rules on women being coerced or forced, she wanted to try the softer way first. Turning a deaf ear, the officer dragged Rubina to the gate who continued to scream for help.
The commotion caught Balram’s eye as he returned from the temple. His seething anger against the British took over and he rushed towards the gate of the Kothi, grabbed the British officer by the collar, and hollered, “How dare you?”
“When will you people stop forcing yourself,” he roared. “Don’t you see she says NO.”
An aggressive scuffle ensued before Rubina was free from the clutches of the officer. Fearing a hostile crowd, Begum Ji doused the lights. Meanwhile, Zulfiqar picked up the incoherent officer on his shoulders and walked away.
Inadvertently, Rubina’s arm was still in Balram’s protective grip. She fidgeted trying to break lose, then their eyes met. Rubina’s heart melted as Balram loosened his hold. She straightened her dupatta and walked away, her head lowered.
It did not take long for both of them to look for excuses to meet at the village outskirts. It wasn’t just love that bound them together. The union was reinforced by the love for their motherland, the want for freedom and the allegiance towards the revolutionaries.
The grace of the danseuse and the brawn of a soldier, a contrast that ignited passion. The growing fondness did not stay hidden from Begum Ji. How could she miss Rubina’s new attraction to getting dressed. Afterall it was the same girl who would rebel at the thought of hiding her original self behind realms of make up. A faint smile escaped her lips as she ushered Rubina towards her room one day.
“Love gives color to the cheeks and a spring to the steps my dear.” Begum blushed as if in retrospect. “But it is also a dagger that can cut through your soul. Love is a flame which though eternal but asks for sacrifice. Are you ready my child?”
Rubina hadn’t looked up ever since Begum Ji had started speaking. Her beautiful dark doe like eyes, glued to the mosaic floor. This woman held the place of her mother and she couldn’t dare to offend her.
“You are now a famous dancer in this area. A bright future stands etched for you. Why do you want to get glued to one man?” she continued. “Remember, I can’t allow him inside the Kothi, those rights are exclusive for the white men of the British army.”
“I understand Begum Ji. Why should you risk your life for me?” Rubina answered pursing her lips.
That evening when Balram and she met, her perplexed look tore into Balram’s heart. He cupped his hands around her dainty, oval face, gently tucking the stray strand of her wavy hair, neatly behind the ears. As he looked into her eyes, they were brimming with tears.
“What’s bothering you my dear?” he asked.
She was quite for a while trying to hold back the dam that was about to break lose.
“It is difficult to survive in the Kothi. How long can I save myself from the lustful glances of intoxicated, insane men?”
“My heart aches with every twirl during my dances. Dance for me is sacred, like meditation. I hate to see it being treated as a means to satisfy the pleasures of men.”
Her voice was heavy with emotion.
“Balram, I want to live life with a purpose and not just waste it away.”
Balram was moved beyond words as he choked on his own words, “I truly understand your plight. I too had a different motive in life.”
“You know how much I idolize the revolutionaries. We both feel burdened because our lives are controlled by others.”
“Rubina, if you are with me, I want to join the freedom struggle.”
Rubina was awestruck. She gathered herself and answered, “Take me along wherever you go.”
“No Rubina. I have requested for a meeting with the local revolutionary contact, Milind Prakash ji. Let’s see what the outcome of this meeting is?” Balram said. “Till then lie low and continue life as usual.”
It is Time
It was business as usual at the Kothi. Rubina continued to perform with a heavy heart. Remembering Balram’s words comforted her. Almost a month passed before she received a message for a meeting. The following evening, she slipped through the rear door of the room disguised in a Burqa (veiled dress for women). The only person always on her trail was Begum Ji and today she was out with a couple of other girls as escorts to a cantonment party.
She ran into Balram’s waiting arms.
“Rubina, my meeting was successful. Milind Ji was impressed with my knowledge about the ideologies of the revolutionaries. They are looking for young men as well as women to join the movement.”
After a pause, Balram continued, “The Kothi is a black spot on the forehead of this town. The exclusivity rights held by the British soldiers are just a means to destroy the lives of many young women, that can be put to much better use.”
Rubina sat listening attentively.
“Since Lakhimpur is an important arms and ammunition dump of the British, it is an important site. I and you can be of major help for the revolutionaries through our existing roles. Giving up our livelihood to join the movement could arouse suspicions and serve no purpose.”
“Milind Bhai wants to share the detailed plan with both of us. We have to meet him this Sunday at the village fair so that we mingle with the crowd and stay out of the limelight.” With all details given, Balram slumped beside Rubina.
Rubina’s eyes gleamed with excitement, “Those sure are very fast developments. I would be highly privileged to contribute to the mission of the revolutionaries.”Saying this she melted into another warm embrace. Her life was about to change, from an illegitimate abandoned child to a woman with purpose. As she bid goodbye to Balram, she knew this was the only way to reach ‘that Man.’
Her face was an amalgamation of emotions just thinking about it. The wait for Sunday ended as she reached the fair ground with many other women from the Kothi. She quietly sneaked away as soon as she caught a glimpse of Balram.
Folding her hands in a humble Namaskar, she bowed in front of Milind Ji who stood alongside Balram.
He reciprocated with a smile, then a pause and a question followed.
“My only question for both of you is what fuels your passion to be a part of this movement?”
Balram was the first to speak. “The grim face of oppression,” he said.
“Despite the fact that this is our motherland, we are begging for rights. My blood boils yet I am forced to salute these dacoits. Why? What for? Sadly, the answer is to save ourselves from hunger.”
Milind Ji smiled, “We have just the right spirit here.”
As his gaze shifted towards Rubina, her expressions exuded pain.
“Milind Bhai, I have seen plundering of the dignity of women. I am born not out of a happy union but out of rape.” “I feel let down in my own eyes. The only way I can retrieve self respect is by fighting the narcissists.” “Also, I wouldn’t lie to you, I have to reach the rapist who slit my mother’s throat the moment he learnt she had birthed me.”
Milind knew he had the right people.
“Balram, you know where the group meets in the evening. Just be there.” And they disbursed.
Nervously Rubina made her way back evading the questioning eyes of fellow women. She definitely did not want to bump into Begum Ji lest the experience of grey caught the hidden agenda in her eyes.
Begum Ji was quite astonished at the sudden change in the behavior and outlook of Rubina. She was willingly involved in the activities inside the Kothi including attending to the top officers whenever instructed but generally keeping a low profile. Begum in her heart of hearts was happy. Little did she know that this was a façade veiling the opportune time to arrive.
Every night, as Rubina crept into bed, her bosom crushed under an unknown weight. She lay in bed, waiting for sleep to take over, at times her hands wrapped around her mother’s picture as if cradling her. Tears streamed down the corners of the doe eyes, revenge seethed inside.
She and Balram continued to meet often just to show that everything was normal. Under the garb of these meetings, required information would be passed to Milind Bhai’s appointed representative. This network became the first spy network of the revolutionaries. It worked from inside the British Army cantonment. Rubina’s role was critical, an informer by day and danseuse by night.
The network had helped the revolutionaries avenge the murder of their key leader involved in an attempt to loot the British treasury. Rubina highlighted the trail of officers involved and Balram helped in smuggling out required arms. Both felt reassured with the outcome and waited for the next assignment.
The Wait is Over
Finally it was time. ‘The Night’…….. the night was here, her wait would soon end. Balram squeezed her hand tight and whispered, “I will be outside the kitchen window, waiting for your signal.”
Rubina nodded in assertion and left hurriedly as her Burqa trailed behind her. Begum was happy that she was performing at the Colonel’s residence. He would shower unimaginable gifts. The reverie and Begum’s smile, halted only with the halting of the tonga (horse carriage). The two ladies alighted and they were ushered to the rear of the massive bungalow. Rubina keenly studied all doors and windows calculating and planning her exit strategy. Begum Ji fancied the lavish lighting, food and drinks laid out, evaluating the potential customers.
Rubina’s performance was breathtaking. She swirled and twirled to the beat of the tabla (Indian musical instrument). She and her ghungroos (anklets) were in harmony as she mesmerized the audience. Most of the men pounced towards the stage but she couldn’t care less. Her focus did not shift from the Colonel whose eyes keenly followed her movements. He was cautious of his body language lest he be caught unguarded. Surprisingly, he signaled to Begum Ji. The way the two met was somewhat shocking as Rubina had never witnessed anyone meeting
Begum Ji that way. As her performance ended, she was hustled into a private room by Begum before the men lept at her.
“Rubina, the Colonel has his heart set on you. Give him tonight. Let time take its course.” Begum said cautiously.
Rubina smiled with a wicked intent as this opportunity had landed in her lap without much effort.
“Sure Begum Ji. You can leave. Send Zulfiqar for me in the morning.”
Begum’s face lit up. She left the room grabbing a chunky bag of coins from the Colonel’s hands.
It was well past midnight. Rubina knew she didn’t have much time. She took off the ornaments, secured the dagger, the poison vial under her ‘kamarbandh’ (a bejeweled belt). Soon the Colonel stood facing her, moving towards her with light steps throwing off his weapon and accessories around the room. Rubina reminded herself of the motto of the movement and then her mother’s face flashed by. By now the Colonel was swaying half drunk falling on to the bed, signaling her to take off his boots.
“Yes”, Rubina whispered under her breath. The moment was here. She crept towards him seductively and soon had the dagger pressing against his neck. Overcome with intoxication he could hardly move, she clenched her teeth and whsipered…..remember the woman you beheaded on your doorstep……”Well, I’m her daughter. And NOW it’s time.”
Shaking like a lone strand of wheat grass in the fields, his efforts to gain balance were thwarted by the strength Rubina had acquired. She glared into his eyes and without wasting time, made a slight gash on the neck.
“Letttt….. meeee…..go! You girl.”
“What do you mean, ‘you girl’. Colonel! I’m your girl!!”
Knowing well, there wasn’t much chance of an escape, the Colonel shot back.
“I haven’t killed any woman in my life. The beheading was with my dagger but the hands weren’t mine.
“What rubbish! Did you import the hands from England?” She roared.
The polished tip of the dagger had made a wound deep enough to cause death, but Rubina wanted the suffering to ensue.
“No…No I’m telling the truth. Fearing a court marshal and suspension, I called the lady called Begum. She willingly took up the job of handling everything in exchange of a hefty price including a trip to England which she undertook within a few months.”
“The lady you claim is your mother was an ordinary prostitute for me. Begum summoned her to my house and slit her throat before proceeding on her two month long vacation.”
Rubina’s hands froze……and all this while she had painted the picture of her being the ‘Queen of magnanimity’.
“I swear on my Lord Jesus, this is the truth!” He couldn’t complete the sentence as his tongue was cut off and head hung halfway from his neck. Rubina turned around and whistled from the window. Balram was waiting as he grasped her and they disappeared into the darkness.
Many questions still remained but Rubina was sure that she would find the answers to them too! Begum Ji’s broad smile and hug seemed superficial now!
* Prompt: Dancer; Discovers that a loved one is not what they seem; Pre-Independence India
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