Balwant Gargi’s original short story – ‘Kaani Vand’ was written in Punjabi.
Rulia arranged his sons’ weddings for the same day. The brides-to-be were sisters. The older son would marry the older sister and the younger son would marry the younger one.
Both families were happy with this relationship. It would save money and strengthen relations four-fold. The brothers would become brothers-in-law and the sisters would become sisters-in-law. Moreover, the wife of the older brother would be both bhabi–the wife of a brother—and saali, a wife’s sister.
The older son, Balauri, was simple while his younger brother, Kishauri, was cunning. Only two years separated them: one was 19 and the other 21. However, it appeared as if Kishauri was the elder because everyone did as he ordered.
In the family’s wholesale store, Balauri would clean and weigh the grains while Kishauri collected the customers’ money. Balauri was tall and lanky, with an unsightly cyst on his left eye, but was very conscientious. Kishauri was very handsome with sharp features, clever in conversation, but was irascible and angered easily.
Kishauri was habituated to his place of privilege, but when it came to their wedding preparations, in every respect the older brother, Balauri, was put first. Balauri mounted the bridal mare first. The wives of his kinfolk applied kohl to his eyes first. The priest congratulated him first on his nuptials. As the younger brother, Kishauri was forced to countenance the fact that Balauri would be first to undergo the various wedding rituals.
When the brothers’ marriage procession reached the village Bhuccho Mandi to pick up the brides, there was a single wedding band and one golden umbrella to celebrate their arrival. They would spend the next three days enjoying the hospitality of the brides’ family together.
After bathing, the elder sister, Dwarki, and the younger, Godavri, were draped in capacious and elaborately embroidered shawls which hindered their ability to walk. The girls’ maternal uncle, per tradition, picked them up and placed them comfortably in their house. Their girlfriends and the nain–who was the sisters’ attendant, coiffeuse and chaperone throughout the course of wedding rituals–braided their hair, dressed them in silken suits; covered their faces and heads under long veils heavy with embroidery; applied makeup, and draped the delicate chains supporting their cumbrous nose-ornaments across their cheeks and affixed them behind the ears. First Dwarki was seated upon the ritual reed mat and then Godavri. Both brothers were joyous. Later when the wedding procession set out to return to the brothers’ home, the same nain came along to take care of both brides.
Both brothers and their brides were seated in the car. Kishauri pinched the nain’s arm and placed a five rupee note in her palm saying, “Please have the veil removed.”
The nain looked at him askance and quipped, “What’s the hurry? You can’t drink scalding milk until it’s cooled off a bit!”
Kishauri thought to himself that this nain is very clever. He whispered in her ear “You won’t always be here to keep an eye on her. Just show me what she looks like!” Then he put another five rupee note in her hand.
Balauri sat in the front seat of the car gazing out and watching the jand and kicker trees flicker past. He deeply revered the marriage rituals and ceremonies and was even amenable to not seeing his wife’s face until the suhaag raat— the night when they were expected to consummate their marriage. For now, he sat aloof in the car looking out at the jand and kicker trees passing by as they drove on.
Clutching the ten rupees tightly in her fist, the nain whispered into the ear of Kishauri’s bride that she should peek out from under her veil. The bride moved her head nervously. The nain said softly “Why are you embarrassed? I am the one asking you to do this.”
Inwardly, Godavri wanted to see her husband but also wanted to maintain the appearance of modesty. As she turned her head and lifted her veil, Kishauri’s jaw dropped in shock. She had a fat nose, small eyes, was as dark as an eggplant, and her cheeks were pockmarked. “This is my wife?” Kishauri asked himself. His heart sank to his ankles. He felt as if his business had gone bankrupt and he was forced to auction off his home to pay his debts. “I have lost everything in a toss of the dice.” His head began to spin.
Balauri, blissfully unaware of his brother’s ruses, was bemused by the simple pleasures of watching the trees glide by.
Kishauri quickly wrestled his emotions under control and grabbed the nain’s feet with his hands in desperation, pleading that she “give me a flash of my sister-in-law’s face.”
The nain turned her shoulders away to rebuff this wildly inappropriate request. Kishauri took a one-hundred rupee note from his pocket and placed it in her lap. The nain considered the demand briefly, then tucked the note into the purse tied to her skirt. She huddled up next to Dwarki in front, and whispered in her ear to ever-so-briefly glance back. Whereupon Dwarki slightly turned her shoulders, lifted her veil, and peered directly in Kishauri’s direction. He glimpsed her round, dark eyes, and searing beauty. Beneath the nose-ornament, her pinkish lips glimmered. Dwarki quickly beshrouded her face once again with her veil. Kishauri quivered on this brief glimpse of her face. A dark shadow of connivance spread across his forehead as he weighed his options. Suddenly, his nerves settled, likely because he had decided how to fix this predicament.
Both brothers, with their wives in tow, reached their home. All the women and girls of the village gathered to ogle the new brides. The girls sang while the baraat band played very loudly. Hearing their arrival, the sons’ mother came out of the main gate of the family haveli and began the paani vaarna ceremony, in which she vowed to take upon herself all the problems of her sons and their families. Standing at the main gate with a silver garvi containing water infused with grass, waved it over the heads of the couples, and drank from it. She repeated this seven times as the rituals demanded.
As the two sons stepped across the threshold of their home, the dhols began to beat loudly. The loud band and boisterous singing created pandemonium. Availing of the madness and the fact that no one in his home knew which bride was his, Kishauri forcefully pushed his wife Godavri away towards Balauri, then yanked Dwarki towards himself and announced, “This is my wife!”
The mother sprinkled the water upon the couples as the sons entered the haveli with the switched wives. Everything was lost in the clamorous singing. Balauri wanted to say something to voice resentment of his brother’s bullying, but his mother was already caressing the heads of Kishauri and Dwarki, while Godavri stood next to him with her head and face covered with a long veil. Both brides had identical makeup and were wearing identical embroidered shawls and velvet slippers. None of the onlookers could have suspected that the wives had been switched. But Balauri knew. He felt as if scissors were stabbing his heart. His eye with the cyst began to twitch. He had no idea how he would endure this indignity.
Both brothers, with their swapped wives, began the ritual wedding game of kangna khedna. In a large flat bowl, a mixture of milk and water glimmered. The nain was seated nearby and tossed a ring into the basin. Dwarki plunged her hennaed hand into the milky water while Kishauri immersed his manly hand into the same. Duaarki found the ring and clasped it tightly in her fist. Kishauri hurriedly grabbed her hand and squeezed it, forcing the ring to slip from her grasp. Both felt a titillating tingling as their hands met beneath the pearly water. With this innocent yet intimate game, their relationship blossomed.
When Balauri’s turn came, the nain again tossed the ring into the milky water. Godavri immediately found the ring and cunningly hid it. Then the simple-minded Balauri thrust his hand into the water searching for the ring. When Godavri pulled her fist out of the water, Balauri tried to pry it open. Her face flushed red with bashful discomfort and he let go of her hand. From their inability to play this silly game, Balauri concluded that the hand he found belonged to a stranger, not his wife.
That night the brothers’ mother decorated their marital beds in separate rooms on the top floor of the haveli. Balauri remained outside, quietly sitting on the garden footpath pondering whether, inside that room, his bride was waiting for him. Finally, he resolved to go inside.
An oil lamp was burning in a niche inside the room, and Godavri was sitting on the floor. When Balauri took her hand, she cowered to one side. From under her veil, he heard her say “Do not touch me.”
With those words, Godavri made it abundantly obvious that she was not his wife. Meanwhile, in the other room, his little brother was merrily consummating his marriage with Dwarki, rather than his own wife.
Godavri’s words felt like a hot knitting needle piercing his chest. Balauri felt oddly helpless and could not see clearly through the foggy haze before his eyes. He began to tremble and sob heavy tears.
Balauri left the room and went outside to sit upon the garden footpath once again. He sat on that footpath throughout the night even as celestial constellations migrated across the sky. Hundreds of thoughts crossed his mind. All the injustices he’s suffered throughout his life appeared before him.
His younger brother had oppressed him throughout his life. When the boys played marbles, Kishauri would always snag the ones with beautiful colors. When they played shells and walnuts, Kishauri would toss the shells into a pit or throw them across the road while keeping all the walnuts for himself. When gathering plums from the trees, Balauri would climb the tree and shake them free. The ripe plums would fall to Kishauri standing below, ready to fill his lap with the choicest plums, while leaving the worm-eaten and unripe ones for Balauri. Balauri tolerated all these outrages because Kishauri was his little brother. Over time, his little brother increasingly got the upper hand in every matter.
Little by little, Balauri acquiesced to play second fiddle in the household. He was given second place in each and every matter. When their father divvied up sweets, Kishauri always had first dibs on the piles. For all intents and purposes, their parents considered Kishauri to be the head of the household. By acquiescing, Balauri’s sense of self slowly but surely withered. Because of the cyst on his eye, no one in the household ever regarded him as attractive, or even a sentient person with feelings and emotions.
Balauri spent his entire life with this inferiority complex. But now, after his little brother snatched his bride as if she were yet another pile of sweets, he could suffer no more affronts. He couldn’t even bring himself to speak of this litany of tyrannies much less complain about this most recent indecency with his wife. This was the ultimate assault on his very existence. It was the final debasement which shattered his spirit into myriad scattered shards.
Balauri abruptly stood up from the footpath, descended the stairs, unlocked the main gate, and left the premises.
Dawn was breaking when the mother went upstairs with two covered glasses of milk and found Balauri’s marital bed empty and Godavri sitting on the floor.
The entire household was in turmoil over where Balauri had disappeared.
Two days passed, then five. Balauri had still not returned. His parents asked relatives whether they had received letters; they dispatched a man to visit the in-laws; they even sent telegrams to two or three of his old friends. Finally, they notified the police station. His panic-stricken parents searched high and low but there was no trace of Balauri to be found.
After ten days, a police constable appeared at the door and informed them that a man’s body had been discovered in an abandoned well in Rohi. A goat-herder had smelled a wretched stench emanating from the well. It was Balauri’s corpse.
Neither sister knew which one had become a widow.
About Balwant Gargi: Balwant Gargi (b. 4 December 1916 – d. 22 April 2003) is perhaps most known for his dramas in the Punjabi language as well his theater direction. However, he was also a scholar and prolific novelist and short story writer. In 1962, Gargi was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award, which is the highest Indian literary award, for his play Rang Manch. In 1972, he received the Padma Shri (1972). In 1998 he was bestowed the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in Punjabi Playwriting in 1998. Gargi is one of the few artists who received both the Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards. In 2017, the Government of India officially released postage stamps to commemorate the birth-centenary of Balwant Gargi (1916-2016).
About the Translator: C. Christine Fair is an Associate Professor within the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She studies political and military events of South Asia and travels extensively throughout Asia and the Middle East. Her books include In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (OUP 2019); Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (OUP, 2014); and Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States (Globe Pequot, 2008). She has published creative pieces in The Bark, The Dime Show Review, Clementine Unbound, Awakenings, Fifty Word Stories, The Drabble, Sandy River Review, Sonder Midwest, Black Horse Magazine, Furious Gazelle, Hyptertext, Barzakh Magazine and Bluntly Magazine among others. Her visual poetry has appeared in Awakenings, pulpMAG and several forthcoming pieces in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, The Indianapolis Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine and PCC Inscape Magazine. She causes trouble in multiple languages.
Acknowledgements: The translator is grateful to Galwant Gargi’s son, Manu Gargi, for giving me permission to translate this story as well as for providing thoughts about how his father may have translated this story. I’m also grateful to my long-time friend and collaborator, Gurdit Singh, for being willing to discuss aspects of translating this story. I’m also grateful to my various Punjabi instructors over the years, especially Seema Miglani of the American Institute of Indian Studies program in Chandigarh.