I heard muffled voices. There were men talking and they seemed to be arguing. My eyes were half open and I couldn't tell how long I had been asleep. The noise from the other room woke me up. My back was numb and my head was heavy. Slowly I stretched until I was perfectly straight. The cool breeze met my toes; quickly I drew them back in the covers. I didn't want to leave my warm nest, but as the muffled voices continued, I grew increasingly curious. I debated about whether or not I should investigate. If papa caught me I would never hear the end of it. Several minutes went by and curiosity got the best of me. Slowly I crawled out of bed.
I shared a room with my Grandmother and I could hear her steady breathing. She was precious to me, my Dadi-ma. Quietly I crept out of bed and slipped past her. She didn't wake up. I tiptoed towards the door and paused to make sure I hadn't been detected. I crept down the cold marble hallway, carefully hugging the wall trying not to make a shadow. When I reached the doorway to the living room I made out who was talking. It was Preshant and Rahul. They farmed the saffron fields for my father. Why were they here at this hour? Why did they sound upset? My father was also talking. His voice was unusually strained and heavy. I decided to try to get closer so I could make out what they were saying.
"We are ruined because of this 'Angrez'!" Rahul's back tensed as he spoke.
My father looked down. "Don't be so rash Rahul. This is our land, our people, and our living. No one..." he paused, "Indian or 'Angrez' alike, is a threat to us. You mustn't worry!" The men not satisfied with my papa's response continued complaining.
An 'Angrez' is an English speaking person. I scratched my head, wondering what has happened. I got a little closer. Just close enough to see my father's face. The other men had their back to me. My father's hands were folded in his lap and his shoulders were slumped against the wall. Outwardly he appeared calm, but I could tell he was uneasy. His face was shadowed but I could see his mouth. His lips were held in a tense smile. He did not look like my papa. The bickering continued and all I could make out was something to do with papa's saffron field and this 'Angrez'.
Tired and not really interested by the conversation I crept down the hallway towards my bedroom. My Dadi-ma was still sleeping soundly. The smell other perfume filled the room - a mix of flowers and tea. The familiar warm scent quickly comforted me. I was soon fast asleep.
My cheeks were warm and there was a bright light. When my eyes opened, a hazy sun and the sound of birds told me it was morning. I got out of bed and ran to the bathroom to wash my face and change. The cool water stung my warm cheeks. I quickly washed up, braided my hair, and changed into my lengha. Mama was in the kitchen rolling chapattis.
"Mama, can I have some tea please?" I was very thirsty. My mother strode across the kitchen floor towards the stove and began pouring my tea.
"What is going to happen now?" Dadi-ma demanded my mother's attention.
"Mother, we will be fine." My mother fidgeted with the tea pot as she spoke. "Foreigners will not be a problem and they may even benefit us."
"Benefit us?" My grandmother shrank back. "Do you remember how they benefited us in Bombay? Our youth were quickly entranced with their ways. They discarded their heritage! They threw away their traditions. God forgive me, the girls are wearing pants and have cut their hair. Like men, they look like men!"
After the British occupation, girls in Bombay slowly started adopting the alien culture. The boldest girls dress in jeans, wear makeup, and wear shirts that expose their shoulders. Some even have 'Angrez' boyfriends. A big no-no as far as Dadi-ma is concerned.
My mother was frustrated. "Oh, mother you are over reacting. Look at us. We are still following the traditional Hindu ways, and our family always will."
My grandmother grimaced as she quickly sipped her tea. I could tell my mother's words were of no reassurance. Dadi-ma's hands shook as she held the thin handle of the tea cup. Her eyes darted quickly from my mother towards the kitchen window. Uncomfortable with all the emotions I decided to take a walk.
"Mama, can I please be excused?" My mother nodded her head and didn't say a word. I turned towards my Dadi-ma who was still looking out the window. I kissed her forehead and ran out the door.
Outside the village it was alive with chatter. The birds were singing, children were shouting, and I could hear the drone of conversations as I walked past the neighboring houses. I headed down the main road. I walked past Abrimi's house and past the rolling fields. I kept walking. The village grew steadily quieter. Beyond the fields I spied a forgotten neem tree orchard with lush, soft grass beneath the trees. I made my way to the tree grove, looking for a comfortable spot. I spied it. It was the tallest tree in the middle of the grove, with thick branches of pale green leaves, and dark red bark that glowed in the sun. I plunked my body against the tree and watched the clouds roll by. What is wrong with everyone? I had never seen an 'Angrez' before. I wondered if they were mean spirited. If I saw one, maybe they would try to hurt me. From how everyone was reacting I knew they weren't good. I promised myself that if I saw one, I would avoid it at all cost. I continued to replay the recent events in my home, trying to make sense of everything. The scrolling clouds were distracting. I stayed underneath the tree for several hours. My stomach began growling. Mama hadn't even noticed I didn't eat breakfast. She always made me eat breakfast. I decided I was hungry and skipped down the road towards my house.
As I approached the village the normal clamoring was going on. I walked in our front gate and immediately was struck by the smell of food. The sweet smell of cardamom and cumin made my head light. I hoped that momma had made my favorite -chicken masala. I ran to the door and almost tripped into the kitchen.
"Where have you been Priya?" my mother scolded.
"I went for a walk. Is there any food?" My stomach was growling and beginning to hurt. My grandmother was sitting in the same spot as when I had left. She was still looking out of the window. The house was strangely silent. No one spoke a word.
My stomach growled again causing my grandmother to notice. "Priya, didn't your mother feed you? Why do you sound so hungry my dear?"
My mother with her back turned, let out a deep sigh, but didn't respond.
"Yes Dadi-ma, mother fed me... I am just growing." Dadi-ma always scolded momma for not taking better care of me. I sat at the table trying to convince my stomach that it wasn't as hungry as I thought I was. Soon there was food at the table and I began shoving spoonfuls of rice and masala down my throat. My grandmother stayed where she was. She wasn't eating. I continued to gorge myself until the relaxing feeling of being full made me slump in my chair.
"Come here my child!" demanded my grandmother. She pulled me into her lap. The smell of her perfume circled my head and I let out a silent yawn. "Never forget who you are and where you came from." Her voice was serious but sad, as if she was going to cry. It scared me. She never sounded like this.
"Yes Dadi-ma." I yawned again. I slowly sank into her chest, her arms wrapped around me tightly. The room was warm making me even sleepier. Satisfied with being full I forgot about being worried and fell asleep.
I woke up and found myself in the comfort of my nest. I loved my bed. My Dadi-ma was fast asleep next to me. I jumped out of bed and headed for the living room.
"Hello?" No one was there. Where was mama? Papa was in the fields and wouldn't come home until after the sun set. The house was quiet. I sleepily stretched and headed towards our living room. Our front door was open and I could see momma outside sweeping.
"Momma, I am thirsty." I was always thirsty when I woke up from a nap.
My mother stopped sweeping and walked into the kitchen and I quickly followed. She took out the tea and began preparing the boiling water.
She kissed my forehead. "Priya how was your rest?"
"I slept very well.. .and I even had sweet dreams!" I hadn't really, but saying that always made my mother happy. My mother smiled and gently stroked the strands of hair that escaped my braid behind my ear.
Soon the tea was ready. My mother poured two cups and sat at the table with me. As I drank my tea, I remembered how upset Dadi-ma had been this morning.
"Why is Dadi-ma so sad?" I couldn't forget how voice had sounded.
"Oh Priya," my mother sighed. "Dadi-ma is just old and afraid of change."
"She is not old momma!" I didn't like thinking of my sweet grandmother as being old. My mother smiled. "Momma...," I wanted to know more about last night. I didn't want to get scolded for eavesdropping, but I needed to know about this 'Angrez'. "Why is papa mad? Why was he talking about an Angrez? Why..."
My mother interrupted me. "You little monkey!" Momma would keep my secret. She wouldn't tell papa I had been spying. "Rahul and Preshant are concerned because an English gentle man is taking over Chonnie Bhan's saffron farm and they are afraid of competition. They have nothing to worry about, and neither do you"
"So an 'Angrez' is not evil?"
"Priya! They are as human as you and I. Where do you come up with such silly things?"
"Well everyone was so upset yesterday.. .and Dadi-ma was sad.. .and, and..”
Momma interrupted me again. "Priya, we are all going to be fine. Sometimes people are afraid of change. We have never had a foreigner live in our village before and people are not used to it. Dadi-ma has been here for a long time, and anything new is going to take time for her to adjust."
I drank my tea while thinking about what momma had just said. I didn't really understand everything, but momma was always right.
"Priya, drink your tea and go play outside while the sun is out. Your Dadi-ma will be fine, and so will Rahul and Preshant." My mother was probably right. The sun was out and I could run down to the lake.
"Mamma, I am going to the lake. I will come back soon." I ran out the door and didn't wait for my mother to say it was okay.
I closed the gate and started walking toward the small trail behind our house. The trail was steep, but it was the short cut to the lake. I looked twice to make sure no one was looking and started down the trail. If momma caught me going this way she would scold me. I always ended up dirty and sometimes tore my clothes on the dead tree limbs that stuck out of the ground. I quickly scrambled down the path hanging onto bushes when it got steep. Finally I made it to the bottom. My lengha wasn't torn but I was very dusty. I had to clean up or I would be caught. I definitely wouldn't hear the end of it.
I hopped several feet to the edge of the lake and looked into the serene water. I loved looking at my reflection. I found a dry log close to edge of the water that led to a water lily patch, and decided to make it my resting spot. I carefully scooted across the log to get closer to the lilies. I got close enough to pick them, and balanced my self so I wouldn't fall in the lake. Near by reeds were blowing gently in the wind making soft music, making me think of the silly song that Dadi-ma sings. I laughed out loud to myself. I continued picking lilies until I had enough to make a thick necklace. I decided that I would give it to Dadi-ma. She would love the smell of the flowers and she always liked the necklaces I made for her. I finished twisting the last flowers together and placed the necklace on the log while I washed up. I had to conceal the fact that I had taken the forbidden route to the lake. A quick once over and I was satisfied that no one would know of my mischief. Slowly I made my way to the main road that led to our house.
I wanted to get home quickly so my necklace wouldn't wilt. As I walked down the main road I was oblivious to the normal village chatter and sounds of children playing. Finally I saw our gate and started walking faster. As I opened our gate I noticed the sun was just above the top of the Himalayan range. Papa would be home soon. I walked into the front door carefully carrying the necklace. Momma was sitting with my Dadi-ma, and they were talking.
"Dadi-ma, Dadi-ma!" I was so excited for her to see what I had made I forgot to say hello to momma. "Look.. .1 made this for you." I held the necklace out for my grandmother's inspection.
She opened her arms, motioning for me to sit in her lap. She took the necklace, carefully putting over her head, lifting her heavy pepper gray braid out of the way.
"Thank you my love." She carefully looked over each flower. "I think this is the best necklace you have made for me yet." She smiled and seemed like her usual self.
"Priya, come help wash the rice for dinner." My mother handed me a bowl half full of rice. I took the rice to the sink and let a slow trickle of water run into the bowl while I swept my hands through the rice. I washed the rice until the water was no longer cloudy. Dadi-ma came over to the counter and peered over my shoulder. I thought she was going to scold me for not washing the rice long enough, like she always did, but instead she started singing her silly song while dancing. Momma and I started laughing. The house was no longer quiet. Everything was going to be alright.
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Zoya Barnes was either too shy to reveal information about herself or wants to keep her mysterious image.