It was nearly full moon, and the air smelled of smoke and dried leaves. There was a fire burning in front of every house in the village. It was a spring ritual to burn all that is old and welcome the future, for Holi (festival of colours).
“Mihira, here, over here!”, Sukhi whispered loudly through the veil of smoke. She could see the glass sequence on Mihira’s skirt peep in and out of the haze.
Suddenly, the shrill sound of a moped stunned everyone into silence. Mihira crouched behind a bush, while Sukhi laid down quietly behind the pile of wood she was carrying.
“Sukhi! Sukhi, are you there?”- Shaila’s voice broke through the noise of the moped.
Mihira and Sukhi came out of their hiding looking incredulously at Shaila. She was hardly recognizable with a colourful turban on her head, wearing a Kurta-Pajama (traditional men’s wear).
“What are you wearing? What is going on? Whose moped is it?”, asked Sukhi accusingly, with her hands on her hips.
Mihira stood quietly, watching Shaila as she parked the bike with ease, as if she had done it several times before.
“Ali gave me the moped and the clothes. It’s for you, Mihira. I will take you to the university campus at Jaiselmer. That researcher Madam whom Ali is helping with the camels, she will take you to Udaipur.”
The three young women stood in silence. There was a finality in Shaila’s words that seemed to grow and expand into the air, making it hard to breathe. They were barely eighteen years of age. They had all got married by the time they were fourteen. The mundane routines of their lives were hardly ever met with such finalities.
Sukhi sat down unsteadily on the desert sand, as if she were hit on the face.
“I told you that I wanted to leave Ajith, and this old village,” Mihira said, as she put her hands consolingly on Sukhi’s shoulders.
It was all too much for Sukhi, she could feel her ears burn in an anger that was losing control.
“You want to leave Ajith? And then what? What will you do? Where will you get money? You have to stop listening to Shaila. Ali has been filling her head with city stories. These are not for us, you understand? ”- said Sukhi as she bore her flaming eyes into those of Mihira’s.
“Sukhi, please”, interrupted Shaila, “this is best for Mihira. Ali has arranged it all with Madhuri madam. Tonight, all the men are in Ajmer for the drum competition. Ajith won’t know that Mihira has left”.
She continued to explain the plan of how Shaila would take Mihira to Jaiselmer University, where Madhuri Madam would meet Mihira and slip her in with the rest of the students who would then leave for a cultural fest to the city of Udaipur.
“Shaila,” said Mihira a little sternly, “slow down a little.”
Shaila was sixteen and the youngest in the group. She fell in love with Ali on the day of her wedding when she saw him for the first time. Ali was kind- hearted and let Shaila explore new experiences like riding mopeds, studying further.
“Mihira, you will always be dark-skinned, and Ajith will never treat you well,” continued Shaila ignoring Mihira’s tone.
“Yes”, pitched in Sukhi suddenly, “you will always be dark-skinned, Mihira. Are you ready to be judged by the outside world? Will your life really get any better? “