Under A Mango Tree Ch. 01

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A wave of nostalgia washed over Rajni when she opened the rusty gates to her quaint, dusty old house in the village. It had been almost nine years since she had last visited. A lot had happened during those years. Her grandmother had died. Her parents had separated. She had discovered something shocking about herself- she was gay. Her life had been turned upside down. She’d felt like her world was spinning out of control, about to fall apart. So, she took refuge in the only thing that never seemed to change, at least in her memories- her village, her house, her life back there. She knew it would bring back memories, but she figured those would be sweeter than the panic attacks and nightmares that urban life brought.

But now as she walked through the rooms of her old crumbling house full of cobwebs, it just made her feel blue. Sitting in the backyard now covered with wild growth and weeds, Rajni felt an unpleasant realization dawning on her- she was alone. Surrounded by all these memories, like she’d travelled back in time, only made her think about her empty, terrifying, overwhelming present. She buried her head between her knees. There was a lump in her throat. She felt cold tears trickling down her cheeks and falling on her feet. She sat bolt upright. She didn’t want to cry, not here, not anymore. She needed to go out, find a distraction, do something that would actually make her feel good. She could think of only one place- the river.

Some of her sweetest memories of the village were splashing around in the river while her mother washed buckets of clothes and gossiped around with the other women. As she stepped in the river, she realized that even after so many years, the water felt the same. Warm at first, then cooler when she moved her limbs around and freezing when she stepped out, making her want to go back. She lay on her back, letting herself float around, the afternoon sun glaring down on her closed eyelids. Everything around her was silent, except for the water lapping against her ears. Then, she heard the clinking of someone’s bangles. She opened her eyes and looked around. There was no one near the bank, but she saw a dupatta hanging Betturkey down from the branches of a mango tree. She moved closer to the bank, trying to get a closer look at it. She didn’t have to try for long, because a woman climbed down from the branch holding a sack fashioned out of the dupatta. It was probably filled with green raw mangoes. When she saw Rajni, she stopped to look. Rajni smiled, not sure what to do.

“Are you from around here?” the woman asked, walking toward her.

“Umm no, I used to live here. Now I live in the city” she replied.

Suddenly, Rajni was aware of the fact that the wet fabric of her shirt was sticking to her body and she was not wearing a bra. She found herself turning pink with embarrassment, even though she was immersed in water up to her neck. She hadn’t expected anyone to be around during the afternoon. The woman plopped down on the drier side of the bank and began counting the mangoes in her dupatta.

“Do you live around here?” Rajni asked.

“Yes. My name is Kusum.” The woman said, still looking down.

“I’m Rajni.”

She took a closer look at Kusum. Kusum seemed to be about Rajni’s age, i.e. in her late twenties. She had a dusky complexion unlike Rajni, who had a wheatish tone. She was wearing a navy-blue saree a little below her knees. Her blouse was bottle green and it had no buttons, so Rajni assumed there was a knot at the back. The saree was draped on her shoulder, the long end tightly wrapped and tucked around her waist. Through the fabric, Rajni could see that she had well-formed breasts and a flat belly. It made Rajni aware of the little flab on her own lower belly. She rubbed it under the water, sucking in her breath in an attempt to make it look flat. She knew it was pointless because Kusum couldn’t see her body through the water. Or could she? Rajni had never felt so self-conscious before.

“Do you come here often?” Kusum asked.

“No, actually it’s been nine years since I last visited.” Rajni replied.

“Do you live in the city?”

“Yes. So, you come here every afternoon for the mangoes?”

“Yeah. Betturkey Giriş I sell jars of this mango pickle” Kusum smiled, holding up one of the mangoes.

“You’re like a businesswoman” Rajni said. Kusum laughed.

“You should buy some. It’s very popular even in the town market” she bragged.

“Are you married?” Rajni asked. She didn’t know why she was holding her breath on that question and she didn’t know why she breathed a sigh of relief when Kusum said, “No.”

“You see,” she continued after a pause, “I grew up in an orphanage. That means I don’t have parents who can fill their greedy mouths with dowry.” She laughed cynically.

“Oh.”

“Yeah, they’re all bastards- these villagers. They’re all rotten from the inside. I’m too good for them.” She said, and then stopped suddenly when she realized that she’d shared too much. “Excuse me, I can be very mouthy at times” she quickly added.

“No, you’re right. I had a tough time because of these people too.” Rajni said.

“Really? What happened?” Kusum asked.

“They…um…spread rumors about me.” Rajni didn’t know how to translate “They outed me and shamed me for being gay” in Hindi.

Kusum opened her mouth to say something, and then bit her lip and looked down again.

“What is it?” Rajni asked.

“No, never mind.”

“What is it?” Rajni persisted.

Kusum looked around to make sure they were alone. “I’ve heard things about you.” She said.

“About me?”

“Yeah. Do you…do you really…” Kusum was fidgeting with her saree, visibly awkward.

“Come on. Spit it out!” Rajni said, splashing some water toward Kusum. Kusum covered her face with her hands and laughed. “I heard people saying that you…you sleep with women” she said, growing solemn.

Rajni paused. “I- uh..” She wasn’t sure whether to talk about it or brush it off.

“It’s fine.” Kusum said suddenly, “I don’t mind. And you don’t have to say anything” She concentrated on washing her mangoes as if it was the most interesting task in the world. She’d cut one open with a pocket knife. “You should definitely try this.” She said, nibbling at a slice.

Rajni started wading out of the water, and she realized that her t shirt and leggings were doing a very bad job of covering her up.

“Don’t come near, me you’ll make me all wet!” Kusum squealed, standing up.

Rajni resisted making a dirty joke. It was right there, but she doubted whether Kusum would find it funny.

“Well, why don’t you come with me back into the water so that we’re both wet?” she blurted. “Yeah, that’s more appropriate. Way to creep people out.” she chided herself.

To her surprise, Kusum shrugged and took down the end of the saree covering her chest. “I was going to go for a swim anyway” she said, keeping the mango and the knife aside. As she raised her hands to tie her hair into a bun, her breasts spilled out from above the edge of her blouse. Rajni’s heart skipped a bit. The loose end of her saree was lying on the ground, unattended. Rajni thought she was going to take it all off, and she felt her earlobes heating up. Her heart was suddenly beating faster. But Kusum picked up the end, only to wrap it around her lower body like the rest of the saree. Rajni was relieved and disappointed at the same time. Relieved because the rush of emotions inside her had slowed down, and disappointed because she didn’t want it to slow down. Kusum, oblivious to all of this had started walking toward the water, the sight of her bare back sending chills through Rajni’s spine. She stood rooted to her spot. She’d never been so nervous before.

When Kusum realized that Rajni wasn’t accompanying her, she looked back and squinted at her. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked.

“I’m actually freezing. I should go before I get a cold.” Rajni said.

Kusum stood with her hand on her hips, her weight shifting from one foot to the other, looking at Rajni questioningly.

“What?” Rajni asked.

Kusum paused for a moment, as if she was considering something. She walked up to Rajni, took a deep breath and cupped Rajni’s face in her hands. Closing her eyes, she planted a deep, passionate kiss on her lips. Rajni was in shock. She didn’t dare to move, as if it would destroy this dream like moment. When they finally pulled away, Kusum turned away and walked toward the river like nothing had happened. But Rajni knew it was real, because she could taste the sourness of raw mangoes on her lips.

(To be continued)

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