There are days I forget you exist, but then at night, you come visit me. In your velvet purple nightgown, you inch towards me so your lips are against my cheek. You smell of moringa flowers drenched in white wine, and it is only when I inhale you, I know it is you. You lie on your side of the bed, right beside me, but you never once stroke my fingers. You murmur as you do when you sleep, knowing I will sing every word that you whisper. Pyaar hua, ikraar hua hai. Pyaar se phir kyoon darrta hai dil. Kehta hai dil rasta mushkil. Maaloom nahin hai kahan manzil. You fade into the darkness while Lata Mangeshkar lingers in the still air. 67 years by my side and you could not get enough.
Lahore, 1941. The card arrives on my doorstep without any notice. It is immediately handed to me with instructions to open it and approve it. I tear the seal, scan the details, and finally find you. I still have two more months till I see you for our pheras, but at least I have a name now. Padma Sen Bhatia. The last name is no shock to me as I have always known that I am only permitted to marry another Bhatia. It is the only way of ensuring that we remain pure. Even though I have heard half your name already, the full version intrigues me. It is a name that has a potential to belong to one of those half English women on screen. The harsh “p” followed by the soft “m” has already made me lust after you. It is wrong of me to be thinking so far ahead, even though I already know you will be my wife.
Lahore, 1942. The purdah divides the two of us even at our own wedding. I attempt to cross the fire as quickly as possible so I can make you mine. You keep up with my pace, somehow sensing that I am in a hurry. Soon enough, the malas have been exchanged and the time for us to meet eyes has arrived. In the darkness of the back room of the house, you finally let the purdah fall. Your eyes swim in kohl with orbs that are big enough to swallow me in. It is not just the eyes I want to see. I glance down at the rest of your face, ensuring that the ring on your nose is on the left side and not the right. I know it is wrong for me to do this, after all, we are of the same caste. Still, the story of the girl who lied about her last name haunts me. Once I realise you are both mine and a Hindu, the two of us can sleep.
Lahore, 1944. The school bell rings to signal the opening of Lahore Montessori School. It is the first time I have ever cut a ribbon. Your hands shake on the scissors amongst mine, but they do not leave until the red line falls to the floor. Applause rings around the two of us but it does not register within my mind. No one has ever clapped for me before and I do not know how to react. We walk through the school, admiring the white brick walls and dusty black chalkboards. It will soon be populated by a herd of students and I intend to soak in every moment of silence. While the building was built in just a few months, you were the one who coddled the idea with me for years. It was our firstborn together and all I want is more from you.
Amritsar, 1947. The car has broken down three times from Lahore to Amritsar. While I stand outside in the heat waiting for the engine to cool down, I cannot help but resent you. You made me leave my firstborn behind to have the second. You sit in the car, your stomach bulging against the dashboard, tracing rings into the air with your cigarette. I know that even if it was not for you, the two of us could have never stayed. I can stand the thought of our bodies burning, but I can never tolerate the possibility of us being submerged underground. I touch the hood and the frigid metal dissolves all my worries into it. I get back into the car and absorb myself into your existence. Your oversized sunglasses paired with your red lipstick is the absolute opposite of what I thought I was getting myself into when I was 20. We are not what we were then. We have lost our country and all we have gotten in return is a growing bump.
New Delhi, 1960. The board finally approved the third school to be opened in the city. At one time, Lahore Montessori School was only in Lahore, but now it only exists in the capital. We both have gone from running a single school to establishing an empire. I left a part of me in Lahore when we closed the first school but I finally feel as if I can live without Lahore. It is not just the school that continues to expand. You are my personal Parvati- showering me with children when I least expect it. You believe that producing a tribe is the only way to stop the neighbouring wives from glaring at you. You never even consider how their insides burn with jealousy when they watch you cruise in your Ambassador in your matching pantsuit. In a world that still suffers, we are the only ones that have recovered.
New Delhi, 1972. The girls have all moved to their husband’s houses. All that we have left now are our two boys. There were nine of us to begin with. Then, the youngest one passed away from tuberculosis, and the four girls reached their twenties to be married off. They still visit, from time to time, to see how the house is faring. Our house lies on the left side of the U with an orange tree sprouting right in the centre. Every morning, you pick out two mandarin oranges for me and leave them alongside my newspaper. I am always late to some meeting or the other, and I never have time to eat breakfast. I juggle the mandarin oranges as I run from one place to another, only peeling them when I have the chance. When my hands are slathered in mandarin juice, I cannot help but smile as I think of you.
New Delhi, 1985. The news channel continuously buzzes on our television as protests spark across the country. The country is calling this the Second Partition and I cannot stand to watch the violence. We close our eyes together as our eyes listen to the monotonous voice describing the violence that is being inflicted against the Sikhs. There are memories that we have pushed outside us and we cannot have them surface again. It is an unspoken bond between the two of us- to have what happened in the past stay in the past. Our grandchildren come to us, asking what happened, and we answer with silence. But, now, a woman has been shot by her bodyguards, and we have to relive it all over again. At least I have you, right here, speaking volumes with no words at all.
New Delhi, 2002. The doctor pronounced you paralysed from the waist down. It was not you who cried, but it was me. All these years I had stayed strong for you and you were the one who got me to shed tears. You assure me that even though your body cannot move, nothing will have to change. I imagine the two of us on our annual trip to London, only I remember that you will have to be in a wheelchair. Our two great granddaughters will never see you walk and I resolve to compensate for you by walking twice a day instead of once. Even though you spend all your time in bed, you never let a soul see you without your lips tainted in red. It is your signature look and you will never let yourself go. You cannot just stay in bed, you must put your mind on work of some kind. Our school now has 43 branches across the city and you write letters to the principles of every single one. When your legs no longer work, you overwork all your other limbs.
New Delhi, 2008. The three generations of our family surround you in the corner room. The window faces the garden, where the mandarin oranges blossom every spring. You ask for them to be picked every day and placed on my bedside table. Then, you instruct me to slip money in every family member’s pocket. Those are your only two requests before you let go. You want everyone around you to be happy, even if it is just in that moment. At night, I wake up to the smell of moringa and check your pulse only to realise you are gone. I choose not to call anyone, instead, I roll back over so we can spend our last night together. I know that once dawn breaks that nothing will ever be the same.
Somnath, never leave me. You once said that to me in a moment of weakness. I stayed true to that end, staying by your side through every single partition. It was you who decided to flee from me, succumbing to death before we could be together a hundred years. Without you, there were times I could not sleep, but then you noticed and started to come back for me. We lie together with our bodies interwoven as we float into the sky. I had never thought moringa and mandarin would be a good combination, but then I met you.