Shikha was a difficult girl. Her parents declared when she was very young that it was likely she would never marry, and so they did not promise her to anyone. It was a matter of will. Shikha was beautiful, and often quite reasonable. Her honey-colored skin and eyes had already produced a number of suitors, and yet despite her parent’s pleading, Shikha was not interested in such things.
Sumir was different from all the others. His father once explained that he was not a man, and would never become one after Sumir delivered tea to the beggars outside the courtyard of his home. He had embarrassed his family in this display of weakness, and his father beat him mercilessly that night. They had not spoken since.
Shikha did not set herself apart from her sisters, they would gather the washing, and clay jugs and travel to the river each morning to bathe, wash, and replenish the household’s drinking water. Shikha loved her sisters dearly, though she did not understand why they clucked and cackled about their husbands day in and day out. They seemed only interested in glittering baubles, western achievement, and the prospects of wealth. Still, she was devoted to this morning walk, their family, and their home.
Each morning Sumir would stand on the balcony of his apartment. He had left his father’s house, and found that the morning sun lay so delicately across the stone floor of his bedroom that to miss it was a disappointment. He would lie very still and watch the grey tones of the world awaken, blending beautifully with the golden hues of sunlight as the village came to life. He had devoted his life to the service of the poor, and to worshiping Shiva with all of his time and energy. Meditation and devotion were the only source of peace in his otherwise quite complicated mind.
Daya and Tanushri, Shikha’s sisters wore light sari’s tightly over their heads and gazed softly down as they made their way along the soft road to the river. Shikha’s head was uncovered, and she defied her father by gazing out at the world as she made the journey. There was simply no difference between a man and a woman to her, and while devotion to some man’s god may be a very spiritual interest for men, Shikha was not interested in following any strictures which might subtract her person, or abandon her sense of self. This freedom of expression was quite common in India, among Hindus, but her father was a distant man, with the sensibilities of a Cleric or a Baba. He would not have his daughters live in any other way than that of his beliefs. His warm eyes turned cold, and helpless when challenged, and there was simply no further discussion. Shikha disagreed entirely, and while she loved her father tenderly, there would be no compromise, and she knew this.
From the balcony, Sumir would watch the women and their children making their journey to the river. Clouds of dust danced in the beams of morning sunlight. the sheer fabric streaming behind each woman, and from the heads of children waved at him and delighted his heart. He watched until all of the colors blurred into delicate tones of pale green and grey. It was difficult to distinguish one person from the other in the mornings. The light was soft, but the contrasting effects of the dust created the effect of a slowly moving cloud. His mind would travel and he listened to the voices mingle together into a song. There was one among these travelers who always caught Sumir’s eye. Her sari was the color of a bright tea rose, and it did not cover her head. She did not gaze to the ground, or off to one side, rather she stood upright, her smooth neck shining in the sun, her hair pulled back tightly from her face, and she always looked up toward his balcony each day as she passed.
Shikha wondered about the delicate man on the balcony. Without realizing, she would travel in her mind to the soft line of his tunic, and the gentle way it moved in the morning breeze. His fingers, dark and softly wrapped around the edge of the terrace rails. While they walked toward the river, Shikha always found him standing there in the sun, watching the trail of women as if her were responsible for them somehow. She felt completely casual in her gaze, and she watched him as curiously as she might observe a goat, or a child. But on the journey home, when she knew that he would not be standing on his balcony, she would feel the flutter of her heart, and pull her sari closer around her body. Every day Shikha would make an agreement with herself. She vowed not to look up to see if the man was there on the journey home. Every day she broke this promise. Every day, just at the last minute she would turn and look for him.
Sumir spent his afternoons reading, writing petitions on behalf of his clients, petitions to the council for funding, petitions which would receive no reply. He ate one meal a day, usually a warm nan, and some curried rice. He lived, mainly on tea and tobacco. At night, Sumir lay awake thinking about the world. Often he would find his mind traveling to the image of this mysterious woman, wrapped in the changing colors of sunset. Laying on the stone floor, his head propped up slightly on a pillow, gazing up at the ceiling, dreaming of this woman who passed him every day and gazed at him in a way which made him feel as if he were noble, somehow mysterious, and wonderful. At times he would laugh out loud at his childishness, and have long conversations with the image of a pale orange rose in his mind. He would always lose the debate, and have no choice but to resume his hopeless stare, until his heartbeat returned to normal, and sleep came for him at last.
This morning Shikha’s mind was elsewhere. Her sisters noticed that she was not herself. Her father had been storming about the house making proclamations and declarations of orderliness and obligation, and Shikha had not said a word. Her father even noticed that his little cactus was not prickling this morning. She sipped her tea quietly, and gazed out the window into the darkness. “Shiki” Her mother said sweetly, stroking her hair. “Shiki, what is it my love?” Shikha’s eyes focused on her mother’s soft, weathered face, and her lips parted as if she had been repeating a mantra. “Shiki what is it?” Her mother asked again, more softly this time. “Shradhdha.” She whispered so quietly that no one could hear her.
Sumir was resolved. He simply could not go on watching this woman passing her every day without making some sort of a gesture. He had been up all night practicing in the mirror of his toilet. He tried waving, nodding, making subtle smiles, he even tried to wink, or to stare amorously like the movie stars, but nothing seemed quite right. After hours of study and practice, Sumir decided that he would simply trust his heart. If he dropped his tea, waved like an idiot, and fell over the edge of the balcony then so be it. But today was the day. He was going to say something. He was going to make himself known to her.
The procession of women and crowds of children was narrow and long. Sumir stood on the balcony, his knees quivering, his hands moist with sweat. “Where is she?” He thought to himself. “All of these women look alike. Where is she? Have I missed her?” His heart began to pound in his chest, and his head throbbed in harmony until the last of the women had passed. His heart sank deeply within his torso, the gnawing pull of the muscles in his throat made him feel as if the floor were falling out from under him, and he were about to vomit the eleven glasses of tea he had been nervously gulping. He walked into his room, and back onto the balcony.
Shikha had made it as far as the center of town. At the urn in the square, she had told her sisters to go ahead without her. They laughed and tried to pull her up and bring her with them. Everyone knew that once Shikha had decided something that there would be no further conversation. She was exactly like her father. So her sisters left her there, perched on the lip of the communal urn, gazing sadly into its dry bottom. When all of the others had passed she rose from the uncomfortable seat, and began to walk slowly toward the river.
When Sumir reached his front door, he stopped and gazed at the paint flaking from the wood. Light and shadows played between the warped planks of the door, and the handle was greasy, and felt cold to the touch. He took a deep breath, opened the door and stepped out into the street.
She saw him step out from the doorway. He was wearing what he wore every day, a linen tunic, and soft white trousers underneath. He had brown sandals, and no jewelry. He was looking up the path toward the river. Shikha took three more steps and then stopped.
He turned his head toward the house, and then looked at the ground. “My tea rose.” He whispered sadly. Aching inside. He looked back toward the village, wondering what to do now, and there she was.
When he looked up into her eyes, Shikha’s heart burst.
“I was looking for you.”
“I was looking for you.”
” I am slightly out of my mind at the moment, but I wanted you to know that I am in love with you.”
Sumir took one cautious step forward and extended his arm toward Shikha.
“Why are you grinning? Have I said something wrong? You think I am an Idiot.”
Shikha softly took hold of Sumir’s hand, and pulled him toward her. Sumir seemed to stumble through the air, and float before her. His eyes were glowing, his hands warm and strong.
“No.” She said softly, brushing his face with her hand. “You are not an idiot.”
“You are the only color I see.” He began slowly, his eyes locked with hers. “I can think of nothing but you, and you alone. I can not eat, I can not sleep, I can no more work than I can be still. You are my tea rose, and I love you.”
Shikha softly dropped her hand from his face, and smiled. She tugged at him softly. Sumir took the last step forward between them, and they walked slowly toward the river together.