The Latch

On the thirteenth night of his marriage, sixteen-year-old Mannuram Chidimar is sleeping with his back turned to his fifteen-year-old bride, Sunwati. Sleeping with Sunwati is proving more torturous than exciting, more painful than enjoyable. He doesn't know how Sunwati feels. He’s not at all sleepy. Overcome by embarrassment, he feels as though he’s being watched from the windows and the door. It feels as though he’s taking one of life’s difficult exams.

From where he is now, he turns back and looks at the road he has traveled over the past thirteen nights.

***

Mannuram hadn’t known he was getting engaged. When he was seven years old, his forty-year-old aunt went to Nakahabardaha, in India, to ask for six-year-old Sunwati’s hand in marriage. First she talked to Sunwati’s seventy-year-old grandfather, and then to her forty-five-year-old father. Everyone reached an agreement. It was a long time before Mannuram found out that he was engaged.

It was likely that Sunwati also learned about it much later. When Mannuram did find out, he acted as though he didn't know. He didn't complain to anyone, not even to his parents, for not telling him.

***

Whistling in the springtime breeze, Mannuram came home one evening after playing with his friends by the village’s oldest pipal tree. His father, Rampheraan, called out to him, smiling. He went to him. It had been two years since his engagement. Nine-year-old Mannuram noted the happiness in his father's smile and eyes. Placing his hands on his son’s shoulders, Rampheraan said, "Son, you’re getting married tomorrow. You’ll be a groom now. Understand?"

"What was I till now, Papa?" Mannuram asked innocently.

"You weren't a groom, Mannuram. You were just a son."

"After I become a groom, will I still be your son, Papa?"

"A son you’ll always be. But who knows if you’ll always remain a groom?"

Mannuram knew that grooms got to wear new clothes, so he was pleased. Just as pleased, his friends said, "Mannuram, won't you treat us to a wedding feast?"

"Why wouldn't I?” he said. “My wedding is tomorrow. Come and feast then."

Everyone came. They were happy to able to eat so well. Seeing them happy made Mannuram even happier.

He remembers, now, that his father took five kilograms of fish and sweets when they went to bring home his bride. He doesn’t know why his father took the fish. It was a tradition, so he took it. One thing he knows: fish can’t live without water. Maybe because they’re always bathing, they stink when they’re taken out of water. He doesn't like the smell of fish, so he doesn't like to eat fish. He only likes to watch them swim.

Though he’s from the Chidimar community, which hunts birds, he has never killed a single bird. He loves the chirping and fluttering of birds. He knows his father kills birds. Nowadays the forests are thinning and there aren’t many birds anyway.

He remembers receiving five brass plates, a pitcher, two glasses, and a set of new clothes from his bride's family. He was gleeful on the way back in the wedding procession because of the new clothes he had received. His bride Sunwati was weeping. He wondered how she knew that brides had to weep.

He remembers sitting at the ritual bedi in the courtyard when they got home. Seven-year-old Sunwati was sitting veiled by his side. Sunwati wasn't weeping anymore. She had wept, briefly, only when leaving her house. Around him were some of the people from the wedding procession, and a large number of neighbors and relatives. The priest was muttering some indecipherable mantra. His father, Rampheraan, was sitting beside him to make sure he followed the priest’s orders.

The chill of the month of Falgun descended again as night fell, but Munnuram didn’t feel cold because of his new clothes. The warmth of the fire in the bedi made him drowsy. His father shook him, saying, "Look, Son, look, this is your bride. Wake up, Son, wake up, you mustn't fall asleep at your own wedding."

Mannuram pretended to wake up. He pretended to look at his bride. But he dozed off again. He just didn’t have the eyes of a groom. It was hard being a groom, he thought. You didn’t even get to sleep.

Sunwati too dozed off at the bedi. Her mother tried to wake her up. She didn’t want her to forget the day she became a bride. "Look, Daughter, look, that’s your husband,” she said. “The husband who’ll look after you one day. Wake up for him!”

Sunwati also didn’t have the eyes of a bride. She couldn't even pretend. She dozed off as soon as she opened her eyes.

In front of Mannuram was the bedi, and the priest, and his relatives and neighbors. A few of his friends were also there. They were all awake. Why was he sleepy? His bride was also sleepy. He didn't know whether the bride and groom had to stay awake or could sleep.

He remembers his friends teasing him. From time to time he would smile. Smiling, he held his father’s hand and followed the priest’s orders. Sometimes he did so while awake, and at other times while asleep.

What was happening? he wondered. Everyone said this was marriage. What was marriage? Why did you have to do it?

He remembers his father-in-law washing his feet. In his father-in-law’s face he saw his own father’s age. He didn't know what a father-in-law was. His mother usually washed his feet. Sometimes his father washed his feet. Why was this stranger washing his feet? His father-in-law placed a copper coin in his hand. Why offer him coins the way one did to God?

Many copper coins fell into his hands that night. He had never touched so much money before.

Following the priest’s orders, his father placed Sunwati's hand on his as the priest chanted more mantras. The priest placed a tilaujo, some money, a betel nut and who knows what else on their hands. That was the first time Mannuram touched Sunwati. When they touched he felt a little cold.

Even though he kept dozing off, he enjoyed his friends’ teasing and his new clothes. What Sunwati was doing inside the veil, he didn’t know. He didn’t even want to know.

He doesn't remember much else about the wedding. He just remembers that he got married. He’s not confused about that.

After the wedding he seemed to forget all about it. He had come to understand that the bride and groom lived in their own houses after the wedding. Sunwati stayed in his house for two days, but he never so much as saw her face. He doesn’t think he even talked to her. Trying to recall everything now, he remembers, in fact, that he didn’t utter a single word to Sunwati.

***

He remembers the gauna ceremony that took place four years later. Without telling him, his father and relatives went to his father-in-law's house for the gauna, taking along five kilograms of fish and sweets. They also took a sari, blouse, and some tika for Sunwanti. He found out about this from his mother only after they had left.

The clothes thirteen-year-old Mannuram had got as a groom no longer fit. Looking at the rags on his body, he asked, "Aama, do you get to wear new clothes at your gauna?"

His mother Pabitara replied, "You’ll wear new clothes if your father-in-law sends you some."

He figured that from now on it would be his father-in-law, rather than his father, who gave him new clothes. Then he stopped thinking about it and ran out to play with his friends by the village’s oldest pipal tree.

When he came back, his mother, grinding grains at the millstone, said, "Your papa will bring Sunwati tomorrow. People from your in-laws' will also come to take her back again."

Though he remembered the wedding, when he tried to think about Sunwati all he could remember was a veiled shape. He might have remembered her face had he ever seen it. He might have seen it if he had wanted to. He hadn’t cared at all about seeing her face.

He wasn’t upset that his father had gone for the gauna ceremony without telling him. He wouldn’t have wanted to go anyway. He wondered why Papa had to take the fish, sweets, and clothes. He felt his belly and looked, again, at his ragged clothes. Then his thoughts drifted to the maize porridge he had eaten with chutney that morning.

His father and relatives brought Sunwati home the next day. Two or three of his in-laws' relatives also came. He remembers that the Satyanarayan prayers were performed for his gauna ceremony.

He also remembers that, as was the custom, his younger sister blocked Sunwati's way as she entered the house. Again, Sunwati stayed for two days. On the third day her elder brother took her home. In those two days Mannuram didn't talk to Sunwati. Neither did Sunwati talk to him. Mannuram talked, instead, to his brother-in-law. He can’t remember any more what he said.

In those two days, Mannuram also didn't notice whether Sunwati ate or not, or where she slept, or if she slept at all. Everything that had to be done was done by his parents. Sunwati also paid him no attention. At twelve, she was a year younger than he, but seemed older. He remembers his mother saying, "Girls grow up quickly." He also remembers his elder sister saying, "Women look older when they wear saris."

***

A year and a half after the gauna ceremony, Mannuram’s aunt, rather than his father, went to Sunwati's house for the thauna ceremony, again without telling Mannuram. Who knew what his father had agreed to? Papa had mentioned sending sweets. He must have sent them. Mannuram didn’t wonder why his father hadn’t told him about the thauna or sent him with his aunt. Such questions never arose in his mind.

He remembers his aunt bringing back half a sack of grain. His in-laws also sent him a set of new clothes. Sunwati came with his aunt. She had grown older. It was strange being at home with her. Though he didn’t feel like it, he went out to play with his friends.

His friends teased him, "Your wife has come, huh!" He remembers smiling and saying, “Yes.” His friends were themselves at different stages of marriage. Some had completed the gauna ceremony, others had completed the thauna. Two of his friends, Lalji and Naikuko, were engaged but not yet married.

Sunwati stayed seven days for the thauna. She slept with Mannuram’s mother. Mannuram slept, as always, with his father. He remembers Sunwati's mother coming to fetch her on the seventh day.

***

A year after the thauna came the aalachala ceremony. After the aalachala, Sunwati began to live in his house. The house was small, with a thatched roof. It consisted of a single room with a kitchen in one corner. Mannuram still slept with his father, and Sunwati with his mother.

His parents and relatives explained to him many times that Sunwati was his bride. He didn't understand. How was she a bride? This question lodged itself in his mind. He might have understood had Sunwati explained, but she couldn’t explain. She looked even more puzzled.

Mannuram's parents were surprised that he never spoke to Sunwati. It made his father, Rampheraan, think back to his youth. When he was sixteen, his fifteen-year-old bride Pabitara had already given birth to a daughter.

Mannuram’s mother, Pabitara, also thought back to her youth. Why was her son so stupid? Her daughter-in-law turned out to be just the same. She thought: one day their age would make them understand.

Three or four months later, with no improvement in her son's behavior, Pabitara started to ignore him. When he asked for water she would say, "Ask your bride." When he asked her for food she told him, "Ask your bride. Don’t ask us for anything. Whatever you need, ask her."

Things got so bad that when he laid his head in his mother's lap, she would say, "Go and rest in your bride’s lap." When he talked to her she would say, “Go talk to your bride. If you’re hungry, tell her."

Pabitara had a serious talk with him one day: "Why do you run away from your bride? Sit together. Talk."

He snapped, "I don’t know whose daughter you brought home, Aama. How do I talk to her? What do I say?”

"She’s not someone’s daughter, you fool. She’s your bride. You’re going to spend your life with her."

"What makes her my bride?"

"Stay together, and you’ll find out."

"Why should I stay with her?"

"She’ll always live with you now."

"Doesn't she have a mother?"

"Her mother died, she only has a father."

"So why is she staying with us and not with her father?"

Tired of answering her son's idiotic questions, Pabitara went to the kitchen. As she left, she said. "From now on tell everything to your bride. Ask her for everything."

He stood alone, puzzled. He could see Sunwati picking cowpeas in the backyard. His mother had said, “Ask your wife for everything.” Looking at Sunwati, he wondered: what did she have that he could ask her for everything? She had nothing but the handful of peas that she was picking for a curry. He thought about asking for them, but didn't. He had never spoken to her, how could he do so now? To ask for something, you had to speak: though you could give without speaking. It struck him that it was easier to give than to ask.

***

For some reason, his father said one day, "Mannuram, let's build a new room in front of the house."

"Why, Papa?"

His father wanted to say, but didn’t: you need a separate room now. All he said was, "The house is too small. We’ll make a separate kitchen too. Understand, Son?”

The room went up in about a month. Its walls were made of raw brick and its roof of thatch. His father did all the woodwork. He made two small windows and a door for the room. He also affixed a latch to the door so that it could be opened from both inside and outside.

A bed and some bedding were placed in the room. After that, his father didn't let him sleep with him anymore. "Mannuram, this room is for you,” he said. “This bed is for you. It’s not just for you, it’s also for your bride. You can't sleep with me any more and your bride can't sleep with your mother."

Displeasure spread over Mannuram’s face. "Why should I sleep with her?”

"She’s your bride," Rampheraan said sternly.

Why did he have to sleep with his bride? Mannuram was puzzled. Yet he couldn’t say anything to his father. He was also a little embarrassed. Perhaps he had begun to understand, if only a little, the meaning of a bride.

His mother explained, "She’s not your older sister, and she’s not your younger sister. Nor is she your sister-in-law or daughter-in-law. She’s your bride."

He knew what an older and younger sister were, and what a sister- and daughter-in-law were, but not a bride. He just couldn’t call Sunwati his bride. Neither could he understand why he couldn’t do so.

Reeling in incomprehension, he asked his mother, "You keep telling me to ask her for water, for snacks, for meals. Who is she for me to ask her for everything?"

"She’s your bride.”

“An older sister is older than you and a younger sister is younger. What’s a bride like?”

“Talk to her and you’ll find out."

"What should I say to her?"

"Fool. Tell her, 'I’m hungry, is the food ready?'"

***

To find out what a bride was, he went to Sunwati. She was in the new kitchen, about to cook. He just stood there. He couldn't do anything. The words his mother had loaned him fit perfectly—"I’m hungry, is the food ready?” But he couldn't say them. Neither could he keep standing there. He went back to the courtyard.

His parents hadn’t said anything about all of this at the beginning. They had just said that the house was too small. Only after the room was done had his father announced that he had to sleep with his bride. The announcement had startled Mannuram. Why had his father let him sleep with him for so many years, and then suddenly stopped? Why did his mother no longer allow Sunwati to sleep with her after letting her do so for four or five months?

Though he was fifteen now, he still liked to sleep with his father. How could parents push their own children out of their warm embrace? It felt as though his father had kicked him out of the bed, and onto the floor, in the middle of a sweet dream. And yet he was vaguely embarrassed by his age. Somewhere, deep down, he also felt ashamed.

He returned to the kitchen. There was Sunwati. His mother had stopped feeding him. How was he to supposed to ask her for food? The moment he entered, Sunwati laid out the food and served him. He was relieved to be fed without asking, but he still felt uneasy. But mainly he was happy that he could eat without asking. From the way he was eating, Sunwati could tell that he wanted more food, and she served him again.

***

It was the first time they had to sleep in the same room, and in the same bed.

Evening fell. After eating, he couldn't go to his room. Everyone in the house would see him going in. The neighbors would see him. They would think they were doing something bad. How shameful! He headed out to visit his friends.

He came back around eleven, when he was sure everyone was asleep. The house was quiet. Like a cat he prowled from the courtyard to the veranda, and from the veranda to his room.

The kerosene lamp was still burning. Sunwati was facing the wall, lying on the far side of the bed at an awkward angle, looking as though she might fall off. He stood for a long time. He couldn’t stand forever. He put out the lamp, and, like Sunwati, slept awkwardly on his side of the bed.

For a long time he couldn’t sleep out of fear that he might touch her. He couldn’t wait for sunrise. He hadn’t closed the door. If he closed the door his parents would think they were doing something filthy when he got up at night to pee. He figured that no one would think anything if he were the first one up in the morning. He didn’t notice when, exhausted by sleeplessness, he dropped off at last.

When he awoke in a panic in the morning, Sunwati wasn’t there. He decided to sleep in but immediately changed his mind. What would his parents think? He’d be like a thief caught stealing. He sprang to his feet and busied himself with the day’s work.

***

Twelve nights passed by in this routine. Those twelve nights felt like twelve years to him. He had no sense of Sunwati even after sleeping with her for twelve nights. To him she still seemed like the daughter of a stranger. He understood by now that she was going to live with him. But he worried that he didn’t understand, yet, what a bride was.

With this worry, on the thirteenth night too he slipped into his room after everyone fell asleep, and left the door open. Whether or not Sunwati was asleep, he didn’t know.

As usual, she was sleeping on the far side, lying completely still. He squirmed in anxiety. The bed was small, and when he squirmed he touched her by accident. When they touched, a certain enjoyment reverberated inside him. He wanted to squirm again but before he could do so, Sunwati squirmed. This time the touch lasted longer. He found it even more enjoyable.

Even as he experienced a wordless enjoyment in the silent conversation of their two squirming bodies, he turned away for no reason, and lay on the edge of the bed. He would have moved even farther away, but there was only so much space on the bed.

Now he’s trying to sleep but can’t. It’s past midnight. Remembering how he dozed off at the wedding bedi, he smiles. Had he not slept through the wedding ceremony he might be able to sleep now.

Just as he’s about to fall asleep, who knows what comes over him, and he traces his index finger along Sunwati's back. Then he draws back his hand, as though he has committed a crime. He hides his hands between his thighs.

Soon, Sunwati repays the touch of his index finger with a touch of her own index finger. He smiles. It’s as though their index fingers are talking to each others’ bodies with a script.

He continues the whispered conversation of their touches. This time, he doesn’t touch her with only his index finger. He also touches her with his middle finger. He touches her on the back the first time. This time he goes further and touches her on the belly. Sunwati squirms. He also squirms in response. As they squirm their bodies touch.

Sunwati again repays his touch with her own. Then he touches her above the belly, near the chest, with four of his fingers. Sunwati repays this touch too. Gradually, he begins to feel more excitement than fear. Sunwati too seems to be tickling and tingling. And yet they both keep their backs turned to each other.

He hears the crowing of a cock. He used to feel at peace when the cock crowed. Now, though he doesn’t feel disturbed, he doesn’t feel at peace either. He’s stuck somewhere in the middle.

Sunwati gets up. He also gets up ahead of his parents. He still has no sense of Sunwati as a bride. But he feels, now, that she’s . . . something. That feeling creates a restlessness in his thoughts and emotions.

***

On the fourteenth night, the conversation of touching begins just as it did on the thirteenth night. Unlike the day before, he doesn’t draw his hands back. He rests them on her body. He leaves them resting there. Then his hands wander over Sunwati’s terrain, seeking out, and creating, their own pathway. His hands grow warm and moist. The border between the two bodies closes and the moisture from Sunwati's warm body envelops him. His blood boils from the fire in his body.

It is the month of Falgun. He got married on a cool Falgun night eight years ago. He tries, now, to recall Sunwati's face. He still recalls it only dimly, the way he might remember someone he hasn’t met for many years.

He resolves to look closely at Sunwati’s face at daybreak. Sunwati turns toward him as she squirms, feeling ticklish. He also turns toward her. All the boundaries of touch begin to crumble. They feel each other’s bodies freely. Waves ripple in their touch.

Suddenly, he stops. He glances at the door. It’s open. He wants to spring to his feet, but instead gets up slowly and mindfully.

With urgency, but also with patience, he tries to close the door. It doesn’t close. It doesn’t close at all.

It isn’t closing because it’s always left open, he thinks as he tries, with more force, to close it. The door is about ninety percent closed now, but he can’t fasten the latch. He loses patience. And yet he keeps up the steady effort. Either the door has shrunk or the latch has rusted or the frame isn't properly set. The latch won’t fasten.

He grows ever more impatient, and even agitated. There’s sweat on his forehead, on his back and on his arms. Carefully, but forcefully, he pushes the door frame into place. He keeps pushing it in place.

And, with the five hues of impatience, fear, shame, excitement, and anticipation, and with many other hues mixed in as well, he fastens the latch of the house, of the room, of the door, for the very first time. 

© Amar Nyaupane. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Ajit Baral. All rights reserved.