For The Love of Colour

Here’s a short story for you. Do let me know what you make of it. Don’t be too harsh, though, dear reader!

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Dai was in a hurry that day. She had to go to her eye doctor for a review after her cataract operation, so she’d collect her wages the next day. Age had slowly crept upon her, and even though she did not know the numbers in it, I could presume she must have been at least sixty. Or more. There’s never a certainty of age with some people, regardless of the wrinkles on them.

When she came to me four months ago to become my masseuse, I didn’t like her. Her loudness, her rough hands, her chipped nail paint, none of those helped in changing my opinion. She was supposed to soothe my aching body, after all. Nine months of carrying my little girl had changed a lot in my body, I was told. Even though I could feel little of that lot, I took people’s word and decided to let a masseuse ease the strain out of it. What made me decide in her favour if I didn’t like her, you might ask. Besides my secret wish to have someone to pamper me, it was her straight talk that won me over. “Won’t do your tummy until you’re strong. I don’t want any risks,” she’d said, in a very unlearned Hindi. Dai wanted to know what I’d pay her every month. We settled for a thousand rupees. And a saree, with its blouse. “Won’t do without a saree and a blouse. Colourful ones.”
I looked at the one draped around her lithe, old frame. She had wrapped it around her carelessly; the final span of it encircled her hips, chest and finally her head, to fall carelessly down her shoulder and belly. Bright blue, it looked unabashed in its striking splendour against her mud-black skin. She smiled. Her white teeth opened the gates for the gurgling, harsh sound of her words, “Sarees are important. Colourful ones,” she repeated. I liked her love for colour, and that she was no-nonsense, just like me.

That day, her last with me, as her deft hands and fingers rubbed my skin with not just vigour, but also with a sort of tender vehemence, I asked her, “Dai, how long have you been married?”

“Ah, child. A little over my son’s age. We never count years.”

“Where does your son live?”

“Somewhere close to Delhi. Very far away,” her eyes began to look nowhere.

“Is he married?” I asked.

“Yes,” her eyes lit up again, “he has two children.”

“Do you get to see them?”

“Sometimes. They came here two Diwalis ago,” the strokes were now firmer, painful, even. “My son got me two sarees. One so bright red, our eyes watered. And another, bright green like fresh jamun leaves.”

“How do you keep in touch?”

“He writes letters,” she looked wistfully.

“Can you read?”

“No, the local postman reads and writes for us. He’ll write all sorts of letters, if you ask him. My man never goes to him, but I do. For my son’s letters.”

“That’s nice.”

“His wife gave me a lovely orange saree when I finished the massaging for her daughter-in-law. You know? The one I wore yesterday?”

“What colour do you like most?” I wanted to know, her interest in sarees and colours amused me, because of the bright light they lent to her eyes.

“I like all colours except black and white,” she informed me firmly. “He is around, so I’ll never have to wear them.”

I wanted to ask whether she had ever addressed her husband with more than a mere pronoun, but didn’t. That he was alive was a good thing, her words indicated — not because he was a good husband, but because if he died, she’d have to wear the widow white, or dull cousins of the vibrant ones she liked so much. She must want his long life, I realised. But all wishes aren’t granted, are they?

He died that day.

A month after his death, she came to me to collect her final wages, and her saree-blouse. She was her usual demanding, brash self. And she was wearing red to match her style.

The dilemma I had about giving her a bright yellow and red saree I’d originally purchased was quickly vanishing. Maybe her family and people weren’t old-fashioned after all.

Kaisi ho, dai?” I inquired about her.

Sab thik, beta,” she bared her ever-white teeth, glimmering against the ebony of her skin. Nothing seemed to have changed much.

I was determined to know about her life this last month, so continued my inquiry.

“The maid told me about your husband. You must be alone now.”

“It doesn’t matter much, I am all right. One less mouth to feed.”

“I see you’re wearing your old red saree…”

“Oh yes. He let me, he did,” she said impishly.

“He let you?”

“In his things, people found a letter that said that all of his life, he couldn’t give me anything much, so after his death, I should at least be allowed to live as I was used to living. That I shouldn’t be forced to live like a widow. Wear white and all that, no?”

“He got a letter written? But he never went to the postman…”

“He was a strange man, did unusual things sometimes. May he rest in peace,” she sighed.

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Words you may not be familiar with:

Dai — grandmother

Kaisi ho, dai? — How are you, grandma?

Sab thik, beta. — All well, child.

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22 thoughts on “For The Love of Colour”

  1. It’s late at night and I can’t sleep so I came down to my computer just as your story popped in. How thoughtful of you to send me a bed time story 🙂 I always enjoy reading your stories Priya and this one didn’t disappoint me. Dai is a marvelous character, and the story is full of color and life and little details you don’t expect – like an illiterate old lady with chipped nail polish. I also like it when you include Hindi conversations.
    I didn’t know that widows had to wear white.

    1. Most widows do wear white, but there are some communities in which there are other colours ‘designated’ to them; like maroon, blue… There are a number of widow ashrams where they are encouraged to sing praises of Krishna. Much goes on behind doors in these ashrams. There, now. I’ve let out my secret setting for another story I wish to write. I hope I’ll be able to do it — it’s bound to be too depressing.

      Bed time stories for you, Rosie, will be an honour to write. Maybe I will, someday.

  2. Why do I feel that Dai didn’t feel much for her hubs? Not that I want her to sob her eyes out, but sometimes words are enough to express the love, and her words never really conveyed that. What do you think?

    PS. Lovely story!

    1. Of course she didn’t care much for her husband. Which is why she got that letter written (you did notice it was her who got it done, didn’t you?).

      Dai is ‘inspired’ by my real masseuse. Everything about the two dais is same, yet different. For one, they both aren’t too fond of their husbands, and yet, one of them still has him around.

  3. Ouch! I din see through that. [my grey cells are on a vacation I guess] 😛

    Heres what I thought – Though her hubs didn’t prefer going to the post man, he did that once because he loved his wife so, and din mind going out of his way, just so that she could be happy when he wasn’t around!

    Now she sounds even more heartless 😦 😛

  4. Like the other readers, I love your stories, too. This one reminds me of Hills Like White Elephants. Do you remember? It’s the small detail that always surprises me, such as: “…her eyes began to look nowhere.”

  5. This took an unexpected but lovely turn. I love how your culture seems to hinge on color. And it seems there are many codes of conduct…perhaps some of which are being slowly and carefully broached, in this case by Dai and her “him.” Do your postman really take the time to read and perhaps write dictated letters? That is so charming, so old-fashioned, so no-longer-even-considered here in the world of bottom line finances.

    1. The postmen in the villages are expected to carry out this additional job. And they do it willingly, too. Those in the towns and cities are usually busy making sure there are no dogs in the house.

      There indeed are many codes of conduct, which are normally broken with time mostly because people want convenience, not because they see anything wrong with it.

      Her ‘him’ had nothing to do with the letter, you see. She got it written for her convenience. Maybe I should’ve made it clearer somehow!

      1. What a lovely tradition. This is something that might have happened 40 years ago here, but no longer. Do these helpful postmen get rewarded occasionally with a tasty treat or something?

        Ya…dogs…ubiquitous, I guess for letter carriers around the world.

  6. The end left me smiling. I found talking to the dai before or during the massage could possibly spoil its rhythm. So I mostly talked after. I didn’t know dai refers to a grandmother. I assumed it was an alternate respectful term for an elderly woman. Oh and the photo is beautiful, yet so soothing.

    I am so impressed you are finding time to write stories and keep up with two blogs, Priya!

    1. I presumed dai is for dadi! Not nani, or any other elderly woman, but then the waters are so murky, we can all presume what we want to!

      The actual dai I have coming for my massage mostly likes to chit chat with Bela (if she’s awake) or complain about the heat. We rarely ‘talk’, because she’s quite like the dai of the story — a little to chilli for me. But we’re warming up, too. Especially since Bela responds well to her.

  7. Beautiful story! I could not have ask for a better way to start my day. One of my most favorite in your blog till now. A simple, meaningful story with a perfect message. Just like most of the people in my family including my own parents, I too hate this whole concept of a widow wearing a white saree. I just find it as a punishment for that lady for rest of her life.
    Great storytelling Priya! Just loved the way you expressed these thoughts effortlessly.

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