Originally published on Groundviews.
He was a filmstar, they said. But she had never much cared for films. She had heard of schoolgirls hoarding dog-eared posters; giggling over provocative poses; singing the songs the stars sang; dancing the dances the stars danced; wishing for the same clothes and hair styles. She had heard stories of the glitz and glamour of that faraway world. But they meant nothing to her. Her school days hadn’t lasted long. She hadn’t the time to grow up, watching films and singing songs.
Time was snatched from her and replaced by a gun in her hands. A gun could stop time, she was told. And it had. She knows it has been years since she’d pulled a trigger for the first time, but she can’t tell how many. She can’t measure time by days or weeks or months anymore. None of that makes sense. She can’t measure them by bullets either – there have been too many fired at her and fired by her.
Only her body hints at her that time has passed. She was short and stout when they took her away but now she has grown taller, slimmer. The puppy fat of her teenage years has given way to smooth, hard muscle from constant training, constant moving. Her hair, which she wore cropped short in her younger days, now snakes over her shoulder in a long plait that tickles her bare hip. Her then non-existent breasts have bloomed out over the years despite the tight, limiting uniform. She remembers blushing this morning as she put on her sari jacket, noticing almost for the first time how much her body had changed. In the past, it had been almost easy to forget she was a woman. The sudden reconnection with that essence of herself as she wore her crimson wedding sari that morning made her feel self-conscious and almost uncomfortable.
Beside her, the other brides jostle in the heat with ready smiles for the celebrity now coming their way. Dutifully, she smiles too, feeling the cheap lipstick chap and break on her lips. She resists the urge to bite it off. She doesn’t like the make up. The thick powder on her face makes her sweat and the kajol on her eyes is a jarring reminder of the paint they would smear on their faces for nighttime camouflage.
The only part of her costume that she really loves is the jewelry. The tinkle of the assorted gold bangles whenever she moves her hands delights her. The thick gold thali around her neck glints in the daylight, starkly bright against her sunburnt skin, an announcement to the world that she is married. Anklets jangle around her feet, making her feel irresponsibly like dancing the way they do in those films she’s heard about.
The star has reached her orbit. He grasps her hands and smiles at her, saying something to her that she doesn’t understand. He has said that something to every single one of the brides – she doubts any of them have understood him. She smiles a large pretend smile, and is startled by a barrage of photographers who descend on the scene to take pictures of the celebrity participating in his grand act of charity and her, one of the fifty-three laughing brides, happy to have her marriage witnessed by such a star. She has never heard of him before. Still, she smiles.
The actual ritual, though, she took seriously. She listened earnestly to the priest’s words and whispered prayers of thanks to the gods for this day. It was the only time she felt anything was really real. When her new husband was standing beside her, tall and silent and proud like he always is.
They haven’t talked much today – there simply hasn’t been much time – but she longs for nighttime, when they will finally be together and alone. Husband and wife. He has been her husband in her heart for a long time, but now is it no longer a reason for shame; no longer something to be hidden away. They will no longer have to pray for those secret pockets of time to come along more often so that they could be together. They will finally have each other to come home to. Even if that home is one they cannot leave. At least, they will be bound there together.
She watches him as he talks to a reporter, telling them their story. She knows he is uncomfortable, but they have all been asked to speak if spoken to. When the reporter leaves she can see him scanning the crowd, searching for her. For some sense in the madness. She almost runs to him and takes his hand. His eyes smile relief at her, but he says nothing. In one hand, he is holding their wedding present: two silver cups and plates off of which they will eat their first meal later that day, as a newly wedded couple.
Together they survey the festive mess of brides, grooms and officials. Without a word being spoken between them they start walking as one towards the fence that cordons them off from the outside world. Beyond the fence stands a motley crowd, peering between the rows of barbed wire, to get a better look at the proceedings inside. She can see her mother in that crowd, her best dress now stained with red dust from the long day, holding her struggling baby niece in her arms. The baby is uncomfortable in the heat and dribbles unhappy tears, but clutches onto the arms holding her for comfort. Her sister gives the baby – her daughter – a preoccupied kiss before moving closer to the knotted strips of wire, searching for her newly married sibling.
Her husband raises his hand to get their attention and in minutes they are reunited. For a few moments, she wishes she could tear down the fence so that she can feel her mother’s arms around her again. So that she can tell her sister stories they haven’t been able to share in years. So that she can cradle her baby niece and wonder if there will ever be a time when she will be free. Free to have her own child; to have her own life. She has been imprisoned for so long. First, by an idea. Now, by the ones who captured her and then planned her wedding day. Her head spins with the strange irony of it all.
It is time to go. She doesn’t want to turn her back on her family and begs them to leave first instead. The baby giggles just as they turn to leave and the sound rings out as they disappear into the dusk. She tries not to cry. Her husband steers her gently to join the 52 other newlyweds and they are all escorted to their quarters – 53 individual houses for two. A Peace Village, she was told. She wonders at the name. A house one cannot leave, a village one cannot leave, a place one cannot leave is still a prison.
She briefly rests her head on her new husband’s shoulder. He is silent but allows his body to give into hers a little – a tiny gesture of acknowledgement and reassurance, unseen and unfelt by anyone but her. For a brief moment, she feels protected, surrounded as she is by a ring of weapons. At least they are together, she thinks, taking the silver cup from her husband and tracing its edge with her finger. Her hand leaves the cup, to touch her thali and with that touch, she sends out another prayer to the gods. At least, she thinks. At least, in this prison, she has been allowed love.