In the mind's eye, a one-way procession of flickering oil lamps sways along the muddy shanko between rice paddies and flooded ponds, and finally disappears into a distant wall of impenetrable jungle. Banks of fog rise from warmer waters, mingle with smoke from the cooking fires, and press in a dense sooty collar, a permeable gray wall that parts, then seals, igniting a winter chorus of retching coughs and loud spitting. Tuberculosis is everywhere. The air, the water, the soil are septic. Thirty-five years is a long life. Smog obscures the moon and dims the man-made light to faintness deeper than the stars'. In such darkness perspective disappears. It is a two-dimensional world impossible to penetrate. But for the intimacy of shared discomfort, it is difficult even to estimate the space separating each traveler.
The narrow, raised trail stretches ten miles from Mishtigunj town to the jungle's edge. In a palanquin borne by four servants sit a rich man's three daughters, the youngest dressed in her bridal sari, her little hands painted with red lac dye, her hair oiled and set. Her arms are heavy with dowry gold; bangles ring tiny arms from wrist to shoulder. Childish voices chant a song, hands clap, gold bracelets tinkle. I cannot imagine the loneliness of this child. A Bengali girl's happiest night is about to become her lifetime imprisonment. It seems all the sorrow of history, all that is unjust in society and cruel in religion has settled on her. Even constructing it from the merest scraps of family memory fills me with rage and bitterness.
The bride-to-be whispers the "Tush Tusli Brata," a hymn to the sacredness of marriage, a petition for a kind and generous husband:
What do I hope for in worshipping you? That my father's wisdom be endless, My mother's kindness bottomless. May my husband be as powerful as a king of gods. May my future son-in-law light up the royal court. Bestow on me a brother who is learned and intellectual, A son as handsome as the best-looking courtier, And a daughter who is beauteous. Let my hair-part glow red with vermilion powder, as a wife's should. On my wrists and arms, let bangles glitter and jangle. Load down my clothes-rack with the finest saris, Fill my kitchen with scoured-shiny utensils, Reward my wifely virtue with a rice-filled granary. These are the boons that this young virgin begs of thee.
In a second, larger palki borne by four men sit the family priest and the father of the bride. Younger uncles and cousins follow in a vigilant file. Two more guards, sharp-bladed daos drawn, bring up the rear. Two servants walk ahead of the eight litter-bearers, holding naphtha lamps. No one has seen such brilliant European light, too strong to stare into, purer white than the moon. It is a town light, a rich man's light, a light that knows English invention. If bandits are crouching in the gullies they will know to strike this reckless Hindu who announces his wealth with light and by arming his servants. What treasures lie inside, how much gold and jewels, what target ripe for kidnapping? The nearest town, where such a wealthy man must have come from, lies behind him. Only the jungle lies ahead. Even the woodcutters desert it at night, relinquishing it to goondahs and marauders, snakes and tigers.
The bride is named Tara Lata, a name we almost share. The name of the father is Jai Krishna Gangooly. Tara Lata is five years old and headed deep into the forest to marry a tree.
I have had the time, the motivation, and even the passion to undertake this history. When my friends, my child, or my sisters ask me why, I say I am exploring the making of a consciousness. Your consciousness? they tease, and I tell them, No. Yours.
On this night, flesh-and-blood emerges from the unretrievable past. I have Jai Krishna's photo, I know the name of Jai Krishna's father, but they have always been ghosts. But Tara Lata is not, nor will her father be, after the events of this special day. And so my history begins with a family wedding on the coldest, darkest night in the Bengali month of PaushDecember/Januaryin a district of the Bengal Presidency that lies east of Calcuttanow Kolkataand south of Daccanow Dhakaas the English year of 1879 is about to shed its final two digits, although the Hindu year of 1285 still has four months to run and the Muslim year of 1297 has barely begun.
Excerpted from Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee. Copyright © 2002 by Bharati Mukherjee. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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