It’s 1905, and the Japanese victory over the Russians has shocked the British and their imperial subjects. Sixteen-year-old Leela and her younger sister, Maya, are spurred on to wear homespun to show the British that the Indians won’t be oppressed for much longer, either, but when Leela’s betrothed, Nash, asks her to circulate a petition amongst her classmates to desegregate the girls’ school in Chadrapur, she’s wary. She needs to remind Maya that the old ways are not all bad, for soon Maya will have to join her own betrothed and his family in their quiet village. When she discovers that Maya has embarked on a forbidden romance, Leela’s response shocks her family, her town, and her country firmly into the new century.
The next day my cheeks, my eyes, and my hair are as good as they’re going to be when Nash arrives just after breakfast. Instead of inviting us to his family’s for lunch, he is taking Maya and me to Gol Ghar. Everybody, from children to grandparents, loves Gol Ghar, but I wonder if he’s chosen the grain silo so that we will have an excuse to walk hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder up the narrow staircase. As Maya tells him about the good luck we’ve had with the training college’s opening, I study him.
Nash has always been beautiful: his dark skin smooth, his broad lips projecting softness, his lashes longer than mine with three coats of petroleum jelly. Beautiful, and somehow therefore gentle: the Chowdhurys have always been successful, and lucky, and generous. They have nothing to prove, and Nash, a diamond in this fine setting, even less so. And so though he’s always been tall, and always looked at each person as though they were the only one left in the city, he’s always struck me as laughing, comforting, with kindness to spare. In childhood, we hardly saw anything of him, but once we were formally engaged, he withstood the taunts of his classmates and often swung by with ices or samosas or the choruses of songs from the latest films. It was easy for him to love, and as all I’d ever dreamed of was loving someone back, he was perfect.
He’s changed: his lanky frame has tightened, straightened, and as he listens to Maya, I can see in the stiffness of his hands in his lap and of his toes, curled around the edge of his sandals, that he’s kept the tiniest portion of his attention for himself. He is still beautiful, but also… threatening? Is that the right word for the way he makes my body, still seated and composed, feel called to attention against any inclination of its own? His hair is longer, I see—his barber must only have shaved him this morning, rather than give him the accompanying trim—and this imperfection lets me catch my breath.
The carriage is pulling up to the Gol Ghar— our very own Round House, our silly English silo that once held grain and now serves as a pleasure ground for those of us too brown to make use of the club—as Nash responds to Maya’s exclamation that she’s more than ready for us to go back to school next week. “But surely…” he says.
When Nargis and Mawiyya do that to me in school—trail off in the middle of a thought there’s no chance I could finish on my own—it’s to mock me, but Nash doesn’t mock. I realize that while Maya and I have had numerous conversations about my post-marriage life and how to keep it as seamless a transition as possible, Nash and I haven’t had any. “Why don’t you run slightly ahead and check on the crowd?” I ask Maya with our shared look. We trail her, slowly, and I want to throw my arms around him again, but instead I say, “You know I won’t attend the training college from August if you or your parents don’t approve.” I start with what Maya would call a barefaced lie because I suppose that, all said and done, it’s the truth. November, really, is
wedding season, but ours is to be held as soon as the weather settles. Some families need time to negotiate; ours will be efficiently put together as Papa has ceded complete control to the Chowdhurys since, as even Koyal Chachi would agree, there’s no chance of their taste being anything less than impeccable.
“Oh, no, of course I wouldn’t dream of stopping you!” he says. He actually stops, and turns to me, and reaches for my hands before he realizes, and stops himself. “Leela, I didn’t realize you wanted to become a teacher, but I should have guessed. You’ve read all of the great histories of Chandrapur, and your Sanskrit is far better than mine. I’ve no right or desire to stop you making the most of yourself.” “Well, that’s good, then,” I say. “Though if I’m being honest, I mostly just want to attend the school to make sure I’m able to see Maya every day. I’m not used to a joint household and I’m not sure I’ll be able to play a dutiful daughter-in-law without her as a sounding board.” I pause, but Nash smiles, and laughs. “And after suffering through a mixed education, I think it will be nice to have the chance to teach in the Hindu school whenever it opens.”
We have only taken a few steps, but already Nash stops, causing the mother and daughter behind us to bump into our calves and mumble apologies. “Leela,” he murmurs, so softly I have to lean in to hear, and the proximity is causing my heart to do a furious dance. But then he keeps walking.
“Leela,” he says again after a few steps. “When I was in Japan, at first it was terribly lonely. We tried to integrate, but without eating fish, we Hindu students found ourselves isolated in the canteen; without much money, additionally, I found myself unwilling to hole up and play cards with boys from Lucknow or Kanpur. I know you didn’t have it easy at Bankipore, either, with your father in trade.”
“But after the triumph against the West, it was as though divisions had melted away. Even when we were sent home, I knew I was coming back to something important, and the sight of you in that swadeshi sari running towards me solidified every commitment I’d hardly understood, before Tokyo, that I’d had. I’ve dreamt about you in red for years,” he says, and though I want to faint I press my hands to the wall and keep myself barely upright, “but for the past year, I’ve dreamt about you in white. I’m so lucky that my life partner shares my dreams, not only for us, but for the country.” Nash sees me faltering, and risks censure from the auntie behind us by steadying me, a hand to the small of my back. I am dizzy for so many reasons.
“I just cannot understand why there is no hesitation towards a communal training college that will only lead towards a communalization of the school system itself, when we’re fighting, desperately, against communalism!”
We have almost climbed to the top; I see Maya awaiting us, and when she catches my eye, she winks, but I can’t reciprocate. “It wasn’t a British initiative,” I tell him. “The Director of Schools wanted to keep us girls together, in fact, and then both the Nawab and the Maharani joined together to oppose him. There are surely more than twelve Hindu girls in Chandrapur who may have wanted to get educated alongside us, and soon there will be places, and teachers for them. Education can only help us.”
I am out of breath, but we’ve climbed Gol Ghar, and the view is rewarding enough to let me tear my eyes away from Nash for a minute. And thank heavens, because looking at this new Nash while he is deliberating is… no, not threatening. Unsettling, I decide on. I wink at Maya, and we play our usual game of identifying all of the best places: the fields, in the distance, past the river, where on the way to Gaya we always stop, much too soon, for the best roasted corn; the Rama temple with the most rambunctious monkeys; the Sikh gurudwara that is unquestionably our most beautiful building; the Khudabaksh library where the real scholars spend their days with microscopes, studying the beautifully illuminated manuscripts; the market, where one day soon we must go and see what Indian-made lingerie I will wear to start my married life.
Nash speaks up again, finally. “I’ve missed this place so much.”
There are the beginnings of tears at the corners of his eyes, and I don’t know what to say.
Maya never has this problem. “And didn’t you miss us, then? I didn’t get even one letter from you, Mister.”
She has cracked the gloomy spell, and Nash rifles through his bag until he hits upon a small wrapped package. “I thought you’d prefer the paper,” he says, handing it to her.
“You didn’t have to get her a gift,” I say, knowing what it has cost his family to send him away, and all for a trip with no degree certificate.
“But he did,” Maya says, as though he’d take it back, ripping it open willy-nilly instead of properly, neatly. I lean over to get a better look, and am glad I did: he’s brought her stationary more beautiful than I have ever seen. The British have their formal, heavy paper to announce their galas, and I’ve coveted that often enough, but this is its opposite: thin, almost translucent, and sparkling, oyster pink with sea-green filigree adorning its edges. Maya is staring at it, and I squeeze her shoulders. “Oh, yes,” she says. “Thank you.”
She walks ahead of us on the way down, staring at it; it is a good thing, after all, that we’ve been here countless times before. Nash and I pretend to watch her, to stop her from falling off the edge, but really we are stealing glances at one another. “Thank you,” I tell him, and just for a moment, before our feet reach the solid ground, he takes my hand.
Reprinted from Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow with the permission of Galaxy Galloper Press. Copyright © 2020 by Rashi Rohatgi.
Thank you, Rashi Rohatgi and FSB Associates
About the author
Rashi Rohatgi is the author of Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow. An Indian-American Pennsylvania native who lives in Arctic Norway, her short fiction and poetry have appeared in A-Minor Magazine, The Misty Review, Anima, Allegro Poetry, Lunar Poetry, and Boston Accent Lit. Her non-fiction and reviews have appeared in The Review Review, Wasafiri, World Literature Today, Africa in Words, The Aerogram, and The Toast. She is a graduates of Bread Loaf Sicily and associate professor of English at Nord University.