In two ancient villages twenty-four miles apart, lived two seths, equal in years. Two so rich and so miserly were not to be found elsewhere in the land. Love unbounded, affection abundant! And as fate and that auspicious night would have it, the two seths were wedded at the same hour. The hathleva(1) with their incredibly beautiful beendnis(2). was enjoined at the same moment. And it was at the same time that pearls were conceived in both the oysters. Beside themselves with joy, the seths vowed that should one have a boy and the other a girl, they would be joined in matrimony – the children were married off while still in the womb!
Intoxicated by their love for one another and crazed by their wealth, the seths knew not about the caprice of nature. In the ninth month, they both had daughters born to them under the same alignments of the stars. Partly obsessed with the promise made before the children were born, and partly due to his habitual miserliness, one of the seths tricked the other. Despite having a daughter, he had bronze thalis beaten instead of the customary baskets made of cane. He dispatched the nai(3) with the good news to his friend’s village. Festivities commenced in both their mansions with the handing out of jaggery.
At first, the mother thought that this was a joke between two friends. In time, everything would be revealed. Until then, there was no harm in continuing with this masquerade. In the innocence of childhood, what is a boy and what’s a girl! It is only in youth that these deep differences come to be properly known…
The father, however, knowingly or unknowingly, made no effort to put an end to this charade. He raised his daughter as a son. She grew up with a dhoti tied around her waist, an angrakhi draping her torso and a bandhej turban on the head. At first, all of it seemed to be in jest. But even when she was old enough and the father showed no change of heart, the mother began to fear the worst.
One day, she prodded her husband, ‘How can you be so blind with your eyes wide open?’
‘I’m not blind at all,’ said the seth, a little annoyed. ‘I can see all three realms of the universe!’
The sethani held her head and said, ‘He who sees the three realms can’t see his grown-up daughter dressed in the garb of a man?’
‘Where do I have the time to care about such trivial matters?’ the seth replied bluntly.
The sethani uttered spontaneously what she said every day, ‘Father of our child, what is this foolishness? It is time to get our daughter married, and you think this is a trivial matter?’
‘But I never refused to get her married. In fact, can anyone vie with my far-sightedness? I arranged a match for her while she was in the womb!’
The sethani came closer to her husband and said, ‘What use is your arrangement? Has a girl ever been married to a girl, pray?’
‘What’s marriage! You get married, and that is that. But a vow cannot be broken even in death!’
The sethani began to feel faint. These weren’t words said in jest. How could she explain to her husband what was as clear as day? Is this even something that needs explaining? She stood gaping for a while. But if she remained silent now, it would bring ruin! Finally, she braced herself and said, ‘My good man, the promise you have made cannot honour the demands of the bed. Have some sense before you spout such silliness! I did not nag you all these years thinking it was all a joke.’
‘But I never did anything for which I should be nagged! We will get a huge amount in dowry! With much pomp I will ride in my son’s jaan(4). A man’s word cannot be changed. Why should I have to compensate for nature’s error?’
The sethani was perplexed. Either her husband was still teasing her, or he truly did not want to step back from his promise. But today, she would not let the matter rest until a suitable solution was found. Mad with rage, she said, ‘To hell with your gains! How will our daughter fulfil the needs of the bed having found a father like you? Does this thought never occur to you?’
‘Why? Why would it not occur to me?’ the seth replied, amused. ‘When men go to foreign lands, good women patiently wait it out for eight to ten years. If they end up with a slow, soft husband, wives manage in some way or the other. Child widows, too, somehow spend their days without anyone. Our daughter’s fate is her own. She will live it out on her own too.’
(Excerpted from The Garden of Tales, a collection of stories by Vijaydan Detha, translated from the Rajasthani by Vishes Kothari; Harper Perennial, 2023)
(1) Hathleva: A wedding ritual where the hands of the groom and the bride are joined during the pheras.
(2) Beendni: Wife. Also used for daughter-in-law. Beend: Husband.
(3) Nai: The barber caste. But their responsibility could also include those that a butler does in a household, and they would also take care of all rituals.
(4) Jaan: Groom’s wedding procession.