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April 2008

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neela_bird in aapa

“After crossing seven steps with me thus, you should become my friend. I too have become your friend now. I will never discord this friendship and you should not also do that. Let us be together always. Let us resolve to do things in life in the same manner and tread the same path. Let us lead a life by liking and loving each other, having good heart and thoughts, and enjoying the food and our strong points together. Let us have undivided opinions. We will perform the vrithas united. Let us have same and joint desires. I will be Sama; you will be Rig. Let me be the Heaven; you be the Earth. Let me be the Moon, and you be its wearer. Let me be the mind and you its spokesman. Together we shall live and beget children, and other riches; come thou, O sweet-worded girl.”

Neela Bhattacharya recited the mantra to herself in a murmur, accompanied by the jingling of bangles and the whisper of delicate cloth. Lifting the hem of her new coquelicot sari out of the dirt, she trod the pilgrim’s path from her family’s home in Sutanuti south toward the big ditch and, ultimately, the temple in Kalighat. (The Nereid and Teague’s bed were close by to the west; she smiled, felt her face grow warm, and pulled her pallu a little more securely over her head.)

Seventeen years old and until recently a good, traditional Hindu girl in every respect, Neela was still unaccustomed to the giddy rush from that kind of thought. And it was difficult path to stop thinking along, she’d discovered. She was distracted enough already; she’d been trying to suppress a heady, elated anticipation since last night when Teague had asked. Even so, she’d nearly broken a jug of water that morning for lack of attention, and by noon Kala had been asking, peevishly, what she was so happy about. Sitting still long enough to apply the mehndi to her hands and feet had been a trial, and it was taking every scrap of her self-control not to dash headlong to the little bridge that spanned the ditch, where they’d agreed to meet. For Neela, so serene by nature, such exuberant impatience was unheard of.

Not half as wary as she should have been, she smiled for the thousandth time that day and adjusted the bundle under her arm. She hadn’t brought much; just beads for the wedding, an iron bangle, a more casual sari, and a little jar of sindoor for the morning. More difficult to manage, but just as important to have along, was her wedding present to Teague: a beautiful mahogany sitar, set with etched bone inlays and frets. Pale vines and leaves arced from the base of the instrument, which she'd made sure to have properly tuned. (Not a task she could do herself; she had many talents, but music was not among them.)

The acquisition of the sitar had been something of an exercise in skulduggery (which was among her talents). Her uncle, Rama, was long-since owed a favor by Sri Sharma, one of the oldest and best sitar makers in Calcutta. It was a long story, and Neela had never heard the same version of it twice, but it somehow involved the river, a cart, and very good reflexes. Boro Chacha was never going to call in the favor, she knew, and so she'd called it in on his behalf, for Teague, under the pretense that the instrument was for her dadu. (This, after feigning illness and before sneaking out past Kala's skinny, snoring silhouette. It had been an eventful day.)

Neela's lack of caution was uncharacteristic and perhaps ill-advised, given that it was almost nightfall and she was quite alone near Sonagachi, but she could think of nothing but Teague, of marriage. She'd no interest to spare for the brothels and opium dens a scant few streets over, nor, more unwisely, for the sharp-eyed pimps, ever hunting for new girls. Anyhow, she was confident of Lord Ganesh’s kind hand over the whole thing. She had managed to steal away from home without incident, and she’d gotten the perfect sari from her family’s shop with no one noticing. Moreover, she’d been bedding Teague for weeks now (though not so thoroughly as she'd have liked--anticipation furled tighter, low in her belly). Kala knew why Neela kept returning to bed late at night, flushed and smelling of patchouli and pipe smoke; Kala found out everything, always, but she'd not said a word to anyone. It was a small miracle in itself. Neela reasoned that if her most beloved of gods had kept their path free of obstacles so far, then surely tonight, of all nights, he smiled upon them and guarded their steps.