- One Hundred Rubies of a Pomegranate
I did not know her name until after she died. Not until then.
While she lived, I knew her as "Pishima," a word reserved for the sister of one's father. In the house where I lived, poor destitute widows having no place of honor in society, and no family they could call their own, were given the veneer of respectability when they answered to that esteemed addressing format.
Each year she came to us softly, afraid even to wake the pink flowers blooming in the pomegranate groves, in the orchard behind the house; her eyes lowered in an obedient gesture. She always came alone and always after she had stayed in someone else's household for a few months. I did not know how long she stayed in other homes, or where those homes were, but when I was very young she came to stay in the house where I lived, for only one hundred days. Her visits to this household were always during the summer months, often when the monsoon was raging. Summer holidays drove the wealthy, delicate women of the family to the summer homes in the distant hills, while the men stayed in town and tended to the business and their powerful jobs. Most of the children stayed in the house for about a month, but were eventually packed away along with their fathers. They were sent to visit the women in the cooler environment. For Pishima and me there was hardly any respite from the relentless heat. She was needed during those months to take care of the children and the rest of the family.
During that season, before the rains came, the large house, its surrounding orchards, and the farms around it simmered in the blazing sun. Even the marble floors of the large bedrooms felt hot to the soles of our feet. Yet, as soon as she entered the large dwelling, quiet as the silence of a dark night, the same heat shrank from her gentle touch, as if the previously unbearable sun was being driven away from the parched grains by her sheer willpower. The wilted [End Page 116] paddies no longer remained withered or shrunken, and the largest house in that town, where we both resided, was surrounded by acres and acres of orchards that grew and prospered more and more each year.
There was the delicate scent of the night-blooming jasmine, which always preceded her, even though she never wore any perfume. She came into the household with one tiny suitcase and nothing else and moved into a room that was simple and bare, furnished with nothing but a bed and a small table. A small, square box-like place without definite décor or anyone's fingerprints to make it personal. She unpacked quickly; two white saris and white blouses, and one comb; no cosmetics ever stood on the table. Normally, I found a different place to sleep each night; in that large house it wasn't difficult to find a space in a corner of the kitchen or in a nook of the barn, or under the covered back porch. But when Pishima came to live with us, I moved in with her and had a permanent place for those nights. No one minded or perhaps no one cared. Since nothing was mentioned of the mysterious scent or of the sudden growth of the trees and grains, perhaps I was the only one who noticed these; as I was told by Govinda, a vivid imagination had occupied my mind ever since I was a baby. Govinda, the head cook, who seemed to have known Pishima for a very long time, had told me about the aura that hung about her. No matter how hard she tried to hide her presence—and Pishima's face was always covered with the end of her white sari as befitted widows, a sari without a border or glimmer of color—there was an elegance, almost a detached sense of belonging and a sense of gentleness about her so that she was invariably noticed by others. Perhaps it was the appearance of nothing...