By Zahra Hamdulay
Tigers are rare. Three years in a row we have spent Christmas cramming into jeeps, half asleep, with a very disgruntled Shikari Shambu, shaking his head from the heavens. In the brochures, spotting the regal lords seemed promising, but in reality, no such luck. That’s where we were headed today, a dusty road to another national park, another promise. Tigers are rare.
Little did I know I’d find one in a ghoonghat.
Our chatty driver had geared our SUV to a halt. We trickled out for a lunch break as he explained how the village we were in had been untouched by developers for about 200 years.
It elicited few oohs and the ahhs, until my brother started displaying his parochial snobbery, cribbing about eating lunch on a charpahi with the flies as an audience. Our international education never taught him that the cow dung lathered on the walls would never let a fly close.
The house had unpainted cement walls with no doors, only windows. The kind that would make a child want to go crazy with chalk doodles. We were ushered to sit on a wooden cot by two women in ghoonghats. A dog barked somewhere, but I was not afraid. I couldn’t help but feel like I had been here before. It’s hard to describe how placid I felt there. I’d perhaps say it was like a cave, the perfect amount of cold, and the perfect amount of flaxen sunlight on our faces. India really did seem like the golden bird then.
There were shadows of the branches of a leafless tree, they striped our faces like tribes, and we belonged. On it, exotic birds that I was surprised to see in a desert, played, chasing each other higher up. Lines from a poem I once wrote came back to me:
I like bright bosomed birds that don’t fly home at dusk,
They sing to me to join them, I can’t but I must.
Behind me sat a man with dark features. A Patriarch. Skin, burnt with perseverance in the fields. I wondered what it was like to have a default profession. A simple future. His hair was matted; eyes wielded knowledge from experiences I would never fathom. His arms. He had big bulging biceps that he kept parading each time he leaned back in his chair and put his arms behind his head. Suddenly I was very attracted to what I had decided was a real man. Not the Western stereotype that prided himself on Adidas Superstars and Air pods.
Amid fleeting moments of eye contact, we ate the best meal we had in two days living at a five star. The hot charred bread and the desert spice tingled on each taste bud on my tongue. My dad fed me, and I didn’t refuse. He busied himself in capturing the perfect angle of the plate on his camera, and I didn’t complain.
It was then that she emerged from behind the pillar.
Taller than me, she wore striped sweatpants and a watch. And, like her mother, her hair was covered in a loose floral scarf. My feminist inner voice was the uproar of annoyance: why must they hide their faces? Then it simmered down as I realized what this place would have become if it hadn’t been hidden beneath the ghoonghat of serenity for 200 years.
She reminded me of my girl-crush throughout high school.
She did not speak English, and yet we looked at each other and smiled, making it our language. I noticed how she had the most beautiful freckles, and light eyes. I’d feel her eyes on me even when I pretended to look at the cows on the other side of the fence, and I enjoyed it.
Then way too soon, it was time to leave.
At last she came over, touched my arm and asked me my name, and I hers. Ketan, Kirtan, Simran, I don’t remember. But her mother played with my hair and told me to stay with them.
I would readily oblige. They all walked us back to our car. I turned to look back at the birds that pecked at our leftovers from the plates left out for them. Bowls of water had been tied to the trees to accommodate them. It felt like there was a place for everybody.
In the car the girl rolled down the windows and an ethereal light fell on my face. She brought hers close to mine, held my hand.
‘Come again sometime’
It felt like both of us had forgotten to breathe.
The car pulled away. As we zoomed past green fields and yellow flowers, it felt like a carriage of possibility.
In another life, we were in love.
In another life, we kissed at the window when we said our goodbyes.
In another life, it was okay.
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