We’re going international today with this short story from Swara Shukla, an MLitt classmate of mine who comes from Mumbai, and who studied English literature at the University of Delhi, before coming to Glasgow last year.
THE VEIL – by Swara Shukla
It’s too hot for a September afternoon, even for these parts of Rajasthan. I grunt and fan myself with the sheet I was drawing on. The sand beneath feels like hot lava, my skirt too thin to protect my legs from the angry red burns I know I’ll be regretting tonight. I peer again from behind the broken idol; the temple-ruins are still as deserted as ever. I rest my forehead against the concrete, giving myself five more minutes. They are nearly forty minutes late now.
The sound of faint giggling tugs my lips up in a reflex smile even before I register their arrival. I duck my face as the two women run towards their usual spot under the bargad, still laughing like schoolgirls. They entwine their fingers as soon as they sit down, resting them on the space of ground between them. Two highly incongruous figures, the black-and-orange of their burqa and ghoonghat crossing unspoken boundaries of religion and faith, and other strictures that I’m not aware of, just swaying on the cusp of transgression, and yet hiding in plain sight.
I’m still as fascinated as I was a week ago, when they first stumbled on my secret haven. Fascinated by the fragility of the moments they share under the tree, the distance between their bodies a bit too careful, too tense, their free hands clutching their veils against the hot gusts of wind threatening to slide them off their faces. I observe their feet, buried toe-deep in sand, where I know they are caressing each other, the constant rise-and-fall of the grains giving it away. Their feet and fingers are the only bits of exposed skin, the only visible evidence of the desperation with which they hold onto each other. I wonder, not for the first time, if it is new to them − to touch and be touched because they wanted to.
Women like us fear marriage for a reason, after all.
A tense silence fills the air at the hoot of the train-engine. They sit there, frozen, their veiled faces turned towards each other. Then, Burqa tugs firmly at the other’s wrist, and they get up and dust each other off. They conduct a frantic search for their discarded slippers that have got covered in sand over the last hour. In all their fumbling, the ghoonghat slips off the woman’s face and I look away, refusing to catch a glimpse.
Looking back, I find their figures silhouetted against the golden expanse of the desert, getting smaller as they run towards the railway station.
The station is full of oranges and blacks, two more won’t draw much attention.
I pat my feet once they are out of sight, trying to shake off the pins and needles, and stretch, an inexplicable feeling of relief coursing through me; it is like a perfectly planned crime; – and isn’t sin just another name for crime? – no witnesses.
It sits there, formidable, ominous, inviting. Looking so deceptively frail.
Yesterday, I had flung the offending garment at Ma when she told me about that Chauhan boy I was apparently marrying next month, my own veiled existence looming ahead of me all too soon. But today, I finally see the true strength of this veil, its true nature as a shield against this tiny world of prying eyes.
I realize how frightfully unaware this world is of the sheer weight of what it imposes on us, of the strength we acquire trying to bear this weight all our lives. Unaware of its false reassurances, of the illusion of control it creates. The world conveniently forgets that at the end of the day, it is us controlling the veil.
I pick the fabric off my bed and stride towards the mirror across the room. I cover my face with the orange garment and squint at my reflection. This does not feel nearly as bad as it did yesterday; “Drape of Shame”, I had called it. Today, the veil feels powerful, liberating.
I should probably find a good excuse to convince my friend Radha to come with me to the temple-ruins; I can get her to wear the veil too, tell her she needs the practice because she has her own line of suitors now. I can also find an excuse to hold her hand, carding my fingers through hers, just like those two did.
I pray quietly for my friends. I wonder how far their train had taken them.