Dr. Pushpa V.K., an Iranian national is originally from Kerala, India. Her first English novel “Go and Catch the Falling Stars” was first published in 2005. She has published several short stories and poems in many International Jounals. Her latest story “Voiceless Voices” was published in www.thecriterion.com Feb 2014, Vol.5. She has many scholarly papers to her credit. Currently she is working as Professor of English at Islamic Azad University, Ahvaz - Iran. email : firstname.lastname@example.org
M e h r i y e
‘Mehriye’ and “Sheerbaha” Dowry ! and Milk money ! ... One likes it or not these words popped out like leathery pop corns in between their daily conversations. No wonder some scorned at the very word “Sheerbaha”, some raised their eyebrows, some even made fun of the way people assign an amount for a female as her price and pay to the bride’s family.
But most of the elders justified Mehriye, It was the custom or part of their tradition for many years and they support it.
“It is law” some said…”
Olama says it is a security for the women in case she is divorced or betrayed by an uncaring husband. In that way it sounded pretty better.
Those days, words like Mehriye didn’t matter much to me. But years later it came hurling like a hurricane, the very word with all its whole harsh undertones when Hamid came from Bourjerd to marry Leila.
It was going to be a love marriage with the man she met at the Ashura Hussaini when Shea Muslims mourned the death of Imam Husain. Every year at that time Leila went with her suitcase full of sweets and souvenirs which she packed months before in pretext of visiting her grandma at Bourjerd. I have seen her mother forcing Leila to visit grandmother in the month of Mohram. She knew it is the time that people thronged the streets corners, pious or not pious Muslims gathered at the premises of Mosque, both young and old; all came to mourn the death of the martyr as well as to renew friendships or begin new contacts.
“Go…go…it would be a change for you..”
Mother would insist pretending that she is unaware of Leila packing her finest clothes which she bought and safely hidden many months before the mourning month.
“Beche haste shode inja…Poor child is tired here ! Cutting hair and threading the hairy faces of women”
Leila’s mother would say looking at the onlookers.
Leila is tired it seems! Tired only during the Mohram month?…..many times I felt like saying….
or at least whisper the equivalent of that in Hindi…
Chalo ji …. who are you trying to fool…?
Whenever the mother and daughter made a drama of her unmarried daughter’s escapade, I just smiled.
She always tried to justify her daughter’s trip to the faraway town alone as if she envisaged the questions others might ask. Who doesn’t know the norms? Which girl in the neighborhood travelled alone? And everyone knew the fact… an unmarried girl was denied a room at a hotel in case she happened to stay in a strange town alone. Where can she take refuge at night? Is she safe at the streets if she can’t hire a room for herself..? Mother was clever enough to tackle such questions. She didn’t want to tarnish the family reputation.
In spite of all the endeavors, Leila remained single for many years…I haven’t seen any suitors coming for her where as she always declared the influx of suitors and their family daily knocking at the doors of her friends asking their hands in marriage.
‘Beche telasm shode..’
Leila’s mother often said… she thinks that some one has cast eye on her child. She blamed Leila’s cousins, their jealousy and accused them of chanting magic incantations for Leila to remain single forever. She often whispered some mantras in Arabic and blew left and right ...up and down and finally in clockwise and anti clockwise to ward off the unwanted spirits that blocked their good fortune.
All on a sudden, the block was lifted. People began to acknowledge Leila’s existence. Thanks to the technology; plastic surgery and liposuction! Leila’s giant nose which gave her an eagle look was turned into a little delicate chiseled nose by removing the extra pound of flesh she had carried on her face all these years. Face got lifting, laugh lines were erased, chunks and chunks of ugly fat was sliced off and finally the wild, bushy Ravana eye brows were threaded and tattooed to make a complete metamorphosis in exchange of the huge savings she had in Banke Melli. So also the daily gold and herbal facials along with the yoga classes she had undergone in chic beauty parlors of Dubai and Paris; all did wonders.
Hamid’s visit was a great news in the family. Before Eid Norooz, a line of cars and a minibus filled with people of all ages and sizes, mostly thin, fair and tall ones with sharp pointed nose like Hamid landed at the threshold at one morning. A houseful of guests from Bourjerd, Hamid’s parents, brothers, their wives, uncles and aunts, their spouses and children, his close friends, their wives and children…..
The grown ups couched on the Persian rugs chatted endlessly, laughing all the time and taking part in the discussions no matter what the topic was and a battalion of children played foot ball at the courtyard and the little ones played with Daddy’s myna and chased his pigeons on the terrace. They hovered above the house patiently, flying round and round at the sky waiting for a chance to come back and peck at the grains daddy kept in little earthen bowls.
Big metal vessels and ladles clattered at one corner of the sprawling threshold. The men did the cooking and washed the vessels at the hosche a rectangular tank with cool tap water brimming up to the brim where golden fishes danced under the watermelons and apples floated on the surface of the water. Flowers and vegetables of all types stood in flower pots placed on the four low walls of the hosche. It was their bagche, a miniature garden. The women stirred the pots talking loudly as if it was a feasting day.
Huge cauldrons of rice, meat stew and sweet dishes stood above the burning fire wood, spreading the exquisite aroma of Persian cuisine…. The tempting aroma of freshly made Kebabs and Tanuri Nan… the mild fragrance of saffron, pistachios, almond, basil and deep fried onion and garlic in pure ghee engulfed the whole lane….
First day was a sort of display, somehow a concealed exhibition of wealth and hospitality of the girl’s family. Leila’s mother had taken out the best pottery from their underground vault, all the antique pieces she collected from her frequent pilgrimages to Mecca and Syria… and also the expensive artifacts she bought from the posh shopping malls of Dubai; delicately carved sandalwood statues from India, fine handmade silk sheets from China, chandeliers from Italy, antique flower vases from Japan and exquisite ivory collections from Africa. Things she collected as Leila’s dowry and items from her own personal collection were spread out at every nook and corner of the house.
‘First impression is the best impression’
I told while helping her to place them in the right place.
“Chikar be first impression darim?” Leila mother told me.
As she says, it was not the first impression that matters…
She had her own reasons.
“You know…? The thing is that, no one knows the Bourjerdi people and their customs like me. I am from there, one of them…You know, and they are into formalities…yes kheyli tharofiyan…”
She said while taking out the things neatly packed in cellophane papers.
“It is mean and cheap to show the house bare” and she began to bla bla… how they entertained guests… how they insisted the guests to eat... how many dishes they spread in front of the guests on the sofra and above all how they dressed and how fair and cute their women are… misle holu… she repeated misle holu… misle holu… may be to stress that their women are peach themselves!
“Oh! Not to mention about their house keeping! It is number one!”
She said lifting her old palm up to make a circle in the air with her index finger and thumb.
And she looked at me sideways taunting indirectly that I was a good for nothing who always meddled with books not the utensils of the house.
“What are these books for?’
Once, one of her customers in the beauty parlor asked her …
“Oh! They are my daughter in law’s…”
Leila’s mother said proudly. She always presented her family with high respect to others.
Leila was there too threading the face of a young bride, to paint her face for the marriage on Thursday evening.
“What do you want from her books? She is educated. She reads. What is in that? ‘
Leila asked the customer.
“Ok… Ok… Let your sister in law read thousand books! Grass is sweet in Goat’s mouth? ... Hahah”
The old lady chuckled showing her broad red gums.
I didn’t understand what she meant by grass is sweet in Goat’s mouth... I looked at Leila as usual expecting an explanation. But she didn’t explain this time.
She just smiled and said.
“Leave all illiterates... They see everything through crisp bank notes and round coins.”
“Well, tell me… I told wrong?”
The customer was not ready to retreat…Words in the local dialect came cascading...
“You look at your mother... Is she educated? No… she doesn’t walk and sleep with books… but she has this beauty parlor... how much does she earn. Tell me… By God’s promise you say how much your mother earns monthly? One million… two millions Thumans ! …even more if she gets order for bride’s make up. For God’s sake tell me... is it not like that?”
The old woman went on babbling about how much importance the women give for their look, how the women take care of their beauty, even if they don’t have money to eat they go to beauty parlor to thread their face, wax their feet off the unwanted hair and paint their face to look more fair and beautiful for their husbands. A woman should maintain her beauty for her husband, if she wants him not to think of a second wife.
I sat there frozen though I knew the woman didn’t want to make me feel ashamed or disgusted…. She wanted to stress money and beauty as the essence of life, a one way ticket for a woman …for her gratifications in life. Having a man and money makes life worth living! As if to stress the point she turned to me…
“Look ... girl, one thing I will tell you… if you were coming here with or without a degree, it didn’t matter. But if you knew the basic lessons of Indian or Chinese astrology you could be a milliner in a year. I myself would have brought for you customers”.
The other customers waiting for their turn certified the woman in unison;
“Areh…areh..We too would have come to read our hands.”
Well, who doesn’t like their future to be told!
Leila’s mother spent her entire life with female customers in the beauty parlor and knew how other people would talk about her daughter if she didn’t prepare a grand betrothal ceremony. She first announced it in the beauty parlor, then to the neighbors, found time to ring to all family members and finally instructed all the other daughters to come in advance and help. They came giggling and together they scrubbed the floor, washed the rugs, curtains... polished the furniture... spread out all the antiques and stored items their mother guarded in the underground vault of their house.
The house stood ready before Hamid and his battalions arrive... Everyone ate and praised her housekeeping talents and she went on repeating…
“Don’t mention… don’t mention… I didn’t do anything… it is all Leila’s work… she helps you know...”
Finally they sat down to fix the date for marriage, Mehriye and the sheer baha . While discussing about Mehriye a hostile wind began to blow in the hitherto friendly fields...
Only Hamid told..
“Bashe..bashe…” giving his consent by repeating the word ok..ok….
“Chi bashe…? Uncle shouted …”. What ok is that? Hamid alone can not decide.. It is after all a family business.”
Father, mother, uncles, aunts… brothers, sisters and their spouses all did spill their disgust in unison.
“Where in the world people ask such a Mehriye..?”
Hamid mother’s screeching voice was above all… everyone one uttered only one word..
And one unanswered question seemed vibrating there…
“Who will demand a Mehriye like this?”
What a Mehriye… !!!
And it echoed out into the courtyard and into the lane…
“Get up… lets go...”
The grand uncle of Hamid got up... Shouting...
“As if it is the first marriage in the world..The only girl in the world... !!!... How funny! Strange Mehriye for a pickled girl”
“La ilaha illalah…Estakh froullah ! God forbid!...
He hit his own forehead and bit his tongue several times, repenting, for being ill spoken.
Oh what happened…? What will happen? The guests whispered to each other. Like the inmates of a beehive suddenly attacked, they hovered over and changed paces whizzing just one word.
It echoed there like the calls of cursed Nymph, Echo… vibrating… at the courtyard, at the lane; taking momentum it flow in to the alleys and streets and then rapidly spread out into the vast wilderness of pine groves stood beyond the Andimeshk Railway station.
At last I asked him “Ye sub gad bad! kya huva?” in Hindi for others not to understand.
He whispered as if it is nothing serious…
“Nothing… My parents wanted Hamid’s family to keep dowry equal to Leila’s birth year… all in Gold coins apart from a villa and apple orchards in Bourjerd…”
Suddenly, I remembered the day two priests came from the nearby Masjed to read the akt…
It was many years ago. Yes they too used the same word “Mehriye” and went on arguing behind the partition that divided the males and females of the gathering mostly his young countrymen who came to study abroad. At last one of his friends convinced the priests saying if the bride and groom are agreed for the contract, what the problem with the priests is.
“It is the right of any girl to have Mehriye…” said the priests.
At last one of the priests peeped through the narrow carvings of the partition and asked..
“You agree to marry him …?”
When the priest got the positive answer he asked again..:
“And no Mehriye..?”
Was he asking for no objections to marry? I didn’t know.
Whatever it meant, my silence was consent and the papers were signed. The priests announced us married before they went back to the Mosque they came from.
A week later he took me to that part of the bazaars of Bombay where strands and strands of vibrant yellow marigolds, tube roses and Jasmine flowers hung from the doors and shop windows. Bearded men leaned on their velvet cushions and greeted each other,
Seated on giant white cushions they addressed everyone ‘bai’ and ‘behen’ and sold agarbethis and cheap perfumes. The narrow lanes were lined with little shops sold all sorts of glittering items, glass bangles, knitted caps, Burkhas, Mehendi and Ja-namaz . People jostled and vendors bargained, and the whole place reeked with sweat, dirt and a peculiar odor of camphor, agarbethis and cheap attars.
He stopped near a shop which looked like a mini mosque but sold books which were written in a font and language I could not read. He bought a book and handed over to me... The green and golden letters on the brown and green cover sparkled in big glittering font “Holy Quran”.
“What was the hurry? Could buy it later.”
I told him clasping the English –Arabic Quran.
“It is your Mehriye. My parents told, write a Quran and a rose flower as Mehriye”.
I was thrilled then, so exited to have a book in strange font and sweet smelling fresh flowers. I began to sense a new found bond, honor, love and respect.
But now, years later, living in a faraway land I went numb as though it was an Oracle, an answer to the riddle which never had been answered before… a great truth and a secret that shrouded us came cascading like a flashing thunderbolt of Zeus. I saw the earth begin to crack open revealing the great hole down the earth where the dark Styx flew and the shadow of a ferry man waiting for me. Is it Charon rowing towards me? Everything happened in a split second, just after I have seen Hamid’s family stepping out of the house shouting …
“What a Mehriye…!! Phoooo!!!” they spat on the ground in sheer contempt. And behind them positioned Leila’s mother like giant Cyclops, chasing them away shouting …
“What you all thought? I will ask for a
petty flower that fades and go as Leila’s Mehriye? I didn’t get my
daughter on the way.. Mehriye is the worth of a Girl… Leila costs more
than this Mehriye we asked..!!!!...”