“I didn’t expect to see you back here again. Ever.” Adhiri’s tone is acerbic and I fight the urge to wince. “What happened to that young fancy man?”
“It didn’t work out.” I mutter. I really don’t want to go into it now. Not with Adhiri. I am so ashamed of myself that I could weep. The imminent return to crushing poverty isn’t attractive either. Since that’s where I came from, I hope returning to it won’t be so bad. That living in Nadir’s palace won’t have changed me so much. However hard it is, it has to be easier to bear than my heavy heart.
Adhiri sucks her one remaining tooth for a moment before cackling, “Didn’t work out? Girl do you like to sleep with the rats? With a slum roof to keep off the weather? Rainy season is coming in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“Of course I don’t like it. Who would? Just leave it alone, Adhiri.”
“Why throw over a gold mine like that? Against all odds a Maharaja’s son plucks you off the street and asks you to marry him… You go back and make it work!” Adhiri is not going to let this go.
She is referring of course to my previous trade. I walked barefoot through the safer streets to souks and bazaars selling mangoes from a basket of fresh fruit, which I balanced on my head. I never made much money but my cleanish appearance, neat figure and sweet voice meant I sold far more than other fruit sellers. I think I was even a favourite with the regulars who were happy to overpay me if I smiled and said a few kind words to them.
That is how Nadir found me.
The prince had been visiting one of the better souks incognito, looking for a present for his mother, one of the maharaja’s lesser wives. I had sung out “Mangoes. Fresh mangoes for sale.”
It was my sweet voice that led him to me and to my undoing. At the time I had been bewildered by the handsome, well dressed young man who handed over a fistful of careless coins for my entire basket of mangoes. Adhiri and I had eaten well that night. Not even the rain or the smell of the slums dampened our spirits.
The young man found me again a few days later and again bought all my fruit. He told me his name was Nadir. “Nisha,” I had replied shyly. We saw each other often after that. I became less shy as we talked more. I never knew he was the prince or that his body servant was investigating me until he showed up at the market one day and proposed…
While I have been lost in thought Adhiri has been watching me with a shrewd expression. I do not like the calculating look in her eye.
“Pride is a poor source of food and shelter, Nisha.” Adhiri looks adament and sympathetic at the same time.
If only it were simply pride! I behaved appallingly. How can I ever face Nadir again? Besides my leaving was not entirely of my choice.
“He told me to go, Adhiri. He made me leave.” I know I will cry soon. I don’t want it to be where anyone can see.
“In anger? All couples argue Nisha…”
I shake my head, a vigorous negative.
“Ah well, best off without him then.” Adhiri returns to paring the days leftover fruit. How I hate the smell of mangoes just now. I can see Adhiri is struggling not to ask more questions so I wordlessly excuse myself and retreat to the pile of rags that served as my sleeping pallet long before I met Nadir.
The worst of it is, when I was just a simple mango seller I was content. Even happy at times. I often went to bed hungry and rose even hungrier. I was weary by sunset with walking and carrying, but I was myself.
Living in the palace changed me. The sweet natured girl with the pretty voice and kind heart changed when she was surrounded by jewels and servants. When she could choose from a dozen different foods for each mealtime and mealtimes came round no less than three times a day.
When Nadir proposed to me I was so taken aback that I said yes without even thinking about it. In fact, I think I merely nodded in wordless panic. I might have been agreeing to anything and thank Ganesh it wasn’t anything worse than marriage. But when he had helped me up onto his litter with curtains drawn, I sat there covered in street dust and my tattered sari and thought.
And I thought, this is a kind man and a handsome one but I do not love him. Is it right to marry him? It was then that the first speck of greed appeared in my heart. For my next thought was that I should never again have to traipse the streets selling mangoes and that he loved me, so by agreeing I was making him happy and wasn’t that enough?
Vain and foolish girl! It took weeks, months even for the full magnitude of my innate greed and vanity to manifest, and even then I believe Nadir was blind to most of it for he truly loved me. I started off by loving to be loved. I enjoyed the attention, the daily gifts. I loved the servants who came to dress me in fine soft clothes and brush my hair with perfumed balms. I was overwhelmed with jewels and silks and attentions. At least I was at first.
The simple mango seller began to slip away as I became more spoilt. I forgot how it felt to be hungry. I forgot what hours of weary toil with no respite were like. I began to see my new position and wealth as only my due, because the gods had chosen me. I cannot blame the daily flattery I was subjected too. I believe Nadir found me beautiful for my spirit before he realized I was beautiful outside as well. For all my faults, I was not such a fool as to be ignorant of Nadir’s qualities. I soon fell in love with him too.
This did not improve my behaviour. however. For a long time I had been taxing my servants with petty tasks for the pleasure of making someone else run around after me. I became fussy over food and sent it back to the kitchens if I perceived it even the least bit spoiled. I would dawdle an hour or more deciding which sari I should wear that day and then a further hour choosing my veils and adornments.
To all this Nadir would merely smile and kiss me saying her knew my fine tastes proved I never should have been selling fruit in the first place. This was the only thing Nadir ever did which vexed me. I hated to hear him talk of where I came from. I never mentioned it myself.
“But Nisha, my love, that is what you used to do. That is how we met.” Nadir would say this in genuine puzzlement then bring me a present to coax a smile out of me. How complacent I became. How used to luxury and leisure.
That last afternoon is branded on my brain, more indelible than the henna tattoos that adorn half of my body in preparation of my wedding. They will never be finished now.
It was the afternoon on the day before Nadir and I were to wed. I wanted to look especially beautiful for him. I feared losing his patronage and he had seemed cooler towards me the last few days. The little servant girl had pinned my veil badly twice and I was out of temper. Nadir would be there any minute!
Lata, the servant girl, rubbed the livid red mark on her cheek where I had struck her and set to trying to fold and pin my veil to my liking once more. Somehow her meekness annoyed me more than defiance would have done.
“Oh leave, you ignorant daughter of a dog! Go! Find me someone who can do properly the job you are paid to do! Don’t gawk at me you bucket of pig swill! Go!” I made as if to strike her again but a warm hand caught my wrist and held me gently but firmly.
“Lata, why don’t you go and get something cool to drink,” Nadir’s kind voice made my stomach plummet to the soles of my golden sandals. He had been stood in the doorway behind me, which was why Lata had been gawping. Suddenly I realized that my voice had never sounded so harsh and ugly. I wondered what it had sounded like to Nadir and felt myself bristling.
“Nisha, I never thought you capable of such cruelty. I never thought you capable of cruelty at all.” Nadir’s gentle remonstrance incensed me.
“I was not cruel at all! I was merely disciplining a servant for incompetence, as is my right,” I drew myself up but I was shaking inside.
“My love, a person is better judged by how they treat their inferiors than their betters. That is the true measure of a man, or a woman. Think you that you are so far above Lata?”
“If I am to be your wife then I shall be far above her and she had better do as she is told if she wants to stay employed here!”
“I’ve ruined you. My poor little mango seller.” Nadir let go of my wrist and stepped away his face hardening. “You shall not be my wife, if you cannot treat people with the respect that they not only deserve, but earn every day by working so hard for it.”
“What am I to be if not your wife?! Nadir! Say you don’t mean this?! I did no wrong!”
“As my wife you could do great wrong and great harm with it. The girl I fell in love with has gone.” I saw tears in his eyes but his expression was implacable. “I wish you to go, if you cannot be that girl. Would that I had left you selling mangoes than turned you into this.” He turned and strode from the room.
Numb with shock I removed my fine clothes and fancy jewellery with icy fingers. I dressed in the plainest robes I had and covered my head with one of my servants’ scarves. I had nothing that was mine to take. I looked at my sandals, gilded leather worked soft and fine. They were not even my shoes.
As barefoot as I had come, I left the palace. There was no litter to bear me this time. I walked all the way back to the hovel I’d shared with Adhiri, praying to Ganesh that she was still there.
And so here I am. I seethed and raged on the walk until my fury blew itself out and was replaced by disgust and shame in myself. Nadir’s words were harsh but just. What had I become?
So tomorrow, barefoot and in plain robes, I will hoist a basket of fruit onto my head and walk the souks and bazaars. I hope, oh how I hope, to find the girl Nadir thinks lost forever somewhere in the dust of the hot and weary streets.