(Reading Time: 7 minutes)

Her bag was empty and lying open on her bed. She began to slowly fill it with her things. The room she lived in was a fairly large one. This was only because she was an old tenant in the building. Two adjacent walls of her room were painted a bright pink, while the other two a shimmering red. The ceiling was a dull blue and it hosted a large mirror that was poised right above the bed. She spent a good many nights staring at herself in the mirror; watching, dreaming, contemplating, crying, sometimes bored or disgusted, and on some occasions happy. Her eyes swept up to the mirror and she smiled; that mirror knew a lot of her secrets.

She drew the beaded curtain that covered her wardrobe. A vast array of twinkling garments greeted her. She wouldn’t take them all she knew. The dresses she would distribute in the building, along with her lehengas and cholis. The previous day the girls had already visited her and demanded their share. She had immediately pointed at the dressing table against the pink wall. On it was an assortment of makeup items – enough to bring even the best of the makeup designers to shame. They could take them all she declared, but no they couldn’t touch her perfumes. She had a fondness for perfumes and especilly loved her Chanel No.5 which was a gift from an old admirer.

Within no time her hundred or so nail paints and those many lip sticks, eye liners and other beauty paraphernalia had disappeared. Now the table was naked, save for the perfumes.

She sifted through her clothes keeping aside only the saris for herself. He liked her better in saris, something he never ceased to mention. It flatters your body, he had said repeatedly, till she blushed and hid her face behind her palms.

She never did believe in love, let alone love at first sight, though she enjoyed watching Bollywood movies that glorified true love. Man wasn’t the gender she hoped to spend her life yearning for. Maybe a goddess or a god, but definitely not man.

The first time she had set eyes on him, she had felt an unfathomable sense of attraction towards him, something she could not describe. It was instinctive and it surprised her a great deal. That entire evening she had remained amused at the range of emotions she was experiencing. Her friends teased her mercilessly when she spoke about it. They predicted her marriage and children and a house by the sea. Some of her friends were married and had a good life. But she didn’t believe it would happen to her, ever. Nobody would arrange a marriage for her, so her only hope was to fall in love, and be loved in return.

Because of her love for him, she even enjoyed the sex. She never remembered it to be such a beautiful experience. For her, it was always as mundane as any chore, but now it had taken a completely different dimension.

She smiled to herself. Then hearing the rain fall lightly on the tin roofs, she went to the window. People were plucking the clothes off the lines in a hurry. Soon the water would form dirty puddles bringing the filth from the drains out on to the roads. That did not stop people from entering the building. She would sit by the window watching people brave all kinds of hurdles to enter, making her laugh at the absurdity of it all. Now some of the women waved at her and she waved back. They knew she was leaving.

She went back to her packing. The clothes she arranged neatly in her bag with the perfumes cushioned between them. Next, she pulled out a small felt covered wooden box from deep inside her wardrobe. In it she kept her jewellery: a few gold pieces and the rest artificial; her knitting and crochet needles and other odds and ends. She learnt knitting, crochet and weaving at a workshop run by an NGO. Apart from classes on social and health issues they had a small one on geography. She unfolded a map kept in the deep recesses of the box. A crooked line drawn from a point in Uttar Pradesh in the north to Kolkata in the east showed her the journey she had embarked upon  years ago. At first she was surprised that her village was so far away and then she realised that some other girls in the group had come from outside the country, travelling distances far greater than she had. At the end of the day they had compared the different lines on their maps and laughed about it. She now placed the map along with the other things back inside and fitted the box in her bag.

She took the idol of goddess Durga off the shelf. When she was with her family in her village she remembered praying to Krishna. She wanted to be loved like how Krishna had loved Radha. But after coming to Kolkata she found her strength in Durga. It became her new identity; her new connect with strength and power. But two years ago, she had met with the “Mother Teresa” nuns. They had spoken to her about love and forgiveness. Subjects that were alien to her. Then with time she had realised that different religion or not these two beliefs gave her a sense of peace that she yearned for deeply. She placed the idol of Durga in her bag and next to it the crucifix that was given to her by the nuns and closed the bag. She had insisted on having two weddings, a Christian and a Hindu one and he agreed without question.

Now that she had nothing else left to pack, she lay down for the last time on her bed. She found herself staring into the mirror. An older and much calmer woman stared back, a very different reflection from the girl who had first stared back in fright and self-pity. She was glad that the reflection had changed.

An assortment of knocks on her door brought her out of her reverie. Her friends barged into her room to get her ready, a whole troupe of giggling girls. They had previously bathed her in turmeric and milk and applied henna on her arms and feet and back. Now they insisted on applying makeup. Every day she applied make up to look pretty, but today she didn’t want to do that. There were wrinkles on her skin and bags under her eyes. He had seen her with all her blemishes, but still loved her. That was all that mattered. She decided to be as natural as she could on her wedding day. They were irritated and squabbled over her decision to go to her wedding sans makeup, but helped dress her up anyway.

After they got her ready they carried her meagre belongings down the stairs and into the hall. She looked back at the place that had been her only home for most part of her life. There was sorrow, but the joy was much greater.

There were new girls in the building, some as young as seven or lesser. She felt miserable looking at their innocent faces. Some of the girls felt between their fingers the folds of her silk, off-white sari, chattering among them and staring at her with hopeful eyes. She smiled at them. Most modern women she had heard believed marriage to be a constraining institution, but for her and she was sure for the girls here, it would be the most liberating of all bonds.

She also smiled at the man who first brought her here from her village. He had promised her parents many wonderful things before bringing her to Kolkata, and finally introducing her to the aunty who was in charge of this building. It was aunty who arranged whom she should be with, and for how long, and for how much. She smiled at aunty and aunty embraced her tightly. The other girls took cue and surrounded and embraced her. She was overwhelmed. This was the only family she had ever had.

Outside, taxis were kept waiting. Her’s was decorated with flowers. Her two friends would be the bridesmaids and would be sitting with her. The other girls would squeeze in the remaining vehicles. The Head Constable stood next to her flowery car. She remembered him well. When she was twelve and tried to run away from here she ran into him hoping that he would help, but he had raped her and brought her back. After that she never attempted to run away again.

It had taken a long time for her to forgive everyone, but she did it eventually, freeing up all her hurt inside. She smiled at him. He smiled back and opened the taxi door for her. She got in and looked out at her past. She waved at them. She would begin a new journey now.

“All ready, madam?” The taxi driver inquired.

“Yes. Take me to the church, please.”

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