The Gold Necklace
My name is Aanya and I live in Calcutta with my parents, six brothers and one sister. I attend school five mornings a week, the afternoons being spent helping my mother with Asim, the baby of the family. He is an energetic little boy and cannot be left alone, or he finds trouble. Soon, when my schooling finishes it should be time for me to look for a job, and, as I am good at English, it is taken for granted I will find a position with the telephone company. This was something that at one time I looked forward to, for although I love my family, if I don’t find employment, mother will keep me at home as a carer for Asim where she can keep an eye on me until I am married.
Which is where my problems start.
But first of all let me explain a little about my family. We are Vaishya caste, this because my father, his father and my grandfather before him have always been involved in commercial activity, that is, they owned two stalls in the bazaar selling numerous wares. These my father now owns and from them specialises in saris of all descriptions. They are successful and surprisingly lucrative small businesses, which he opens each day from dawn to dusk.
One day my father is too sick to go to work. Unable to rise from his bed he lays moaning, clutching his stomach. “There are a hundred squirming serpents in there,” he cried to my mother.
“Too much bad food again last night,” my mother says to me with great irritation. “Your grandmother overfeeds him, she makes everything with ghee. I keep telling him to eat less of it but he won’t listen.” (Mother is not very fond of her mother in law’s cooking.) “So Aanya, today you will have to miss school and look after the stall.”
“But...” I begin to protest but am stopped by her steely glare. Mother doesn’t understand how missing classes saddens me, for every day I learn a little more, but I know there is no point arguing. None of my brothers will work in the bazaar in my place. They think it beneath them, and being young men, hold sway in our household, even against father.
When I arrive that day in the bazaar it is crowded, very busy with shoppers and tourists alike, and during the morning I sold eight saris. Father will be pleased.
About to re-stock I spot Bimal coming down the central avenue through the crowd and my heart, as it always does when my eyes behold him, leaps with unrestrained joy.
Bimal - his name means Pure
in Hindu - is studying to be a lawyer and I have been secretly seeing him for almost six months. Dangerous, because if father finds out he will most certainly lock me in the house. Because Bimal, although very clever and well-schooled, will not be considered good enough for me as he isn’t rich. Money and wealth mean a great deal to my father.
And besides, I fear Father has other plans for me; things as yet unsaid but which nevertheless scare me. I know many girls who have been forced into marriage by their parents and do not want that. So I am very careful, only seeing Bimal at lunchtime when school finishes, where among the crowds of students, our quiet chats and linked hands go unnoticed.
I adore talking with Bimal. He is attentive, kind, gentle, very interesting and most importantly, he makes me laugh. Today, he will have surmised that because I wasn’t at school, I would be at the bazaar. However, mindful of my reputation - father is well known after all - and maybe people who know my family will be around, he will not compromise me by stopping to speak. He walks past slowly, our eyes lock and he smiles causing my pulse to race with happiness. I see the glow in his eyes and know his love hasn’t changed. It never will.
The crowd jostles near the stall pushing him closer and I feel a piece of paper slip into my hand.
I watch his straight slender back as he walks on and long to follow him, but know this is impossible.
I sigh, wondering how a life together will ever be possible for us.
We have spoken of this many times, and always come back to the same problem; namely my father’s unknown plans for me. Bimal says that he will do everything in his power to ensure we spend the rest of our lives together, but sometimes I despair. What can we hope to do against the might of my father?
How? I have asked him. How?
He always smiles and reaches for my hand hidden beneath the folds of my sari to squeeze it.
“Faith, Aanya,” he says. “Have faith. Our love will carry us through.”
And I must believe that. For although our lips have never met, our hands are more than capable of conveying our innermost feelings and the deep love we have for each other.
With one last look over his shoulder, he’s gone, swallowed by the crowd. That will have to sustain me until tomorrow when I can see him, touch his hand and hear his beloved voice.
I hurry behind the stall and unfold the paper.
I have found a way for us. I will wait each day at lunchtime outside school until I see you, to explain.
Now I’m filled with a mix of fear and joyful happiness. He has found a way? Can this possibly be true?
My head is in the clouds filled with all sorts of images. I feel as though I’m floating as I sell three more saris, almost forgetting to enter the sales in the book.
At lunchtime trade quietens and I take the opportunity to wander over to Gupta’s Gold Emporium. All manner of trinkets fill the dazzling window display but the one that catches my attention, centrally positioned under a bright light, is a thick rope of white and yellow gold made to imitate two coiled snakes, their heads intertwined at the front. Tiny green stones sparkle as eyes. I stare at it with undisguised longing.
“Ah, I see you like my favourite piece?” a voice says. I look up to see Ajit Gupta, a man of many years with a long beard and fat cheeks, watching me. His hands rest on his ample stomach.
I nod. “The eyes are extremely pretty.”
Ajit strokes his beard. “Emeralds. A beautiful stone, but no match for the beauty of your eyes, Aanya.”
I turn away saying I must hurry back as I could see a customer waiting. When the customer has gone I move behind the sari-clad model on the counter top and look into the small crazed mirror. My eyes are unusual; everyone says so. Unlike the dark-eyed people of India, mine are deep green with hints of amber when the light strikes them. Often I’ve heard them described as stunning but I didn’t want someone like old Mr. Gupta telling me that!
Thankfully, the following day father returnes to work and I go to school. I can barely concentrate waiting for the bell to ring, and when it does, run outside. Bimal sits on the wall waiting. I ease down beside him. He feels for my hand and I hold it tightly.
“Tell me,” I say breathlessly.
* * *
The rest of the day passes in a haze. I bathe Asim and prepare vegetables for the evening meal but my mind is elsewhere. Mother comments on the fact that she’s spoken to me twice and I haven’t answered.
“Is something troubling you, Aanya?” she asks, a frown creasing her forehead.
“No, Mother. Shall I cut more ginger?”
She tuts. “I think that’s enough with father’s delicate stomach. You would speak to me if you needed to, Aanya?”
“If I need to, Mother, of course. I think I hear father now. I’ll lay the cloth on the table.”
Father hurries into the house appearing to be filled with unconcealed excitement. His glance slides over me before he draws my mother toward him. They have a rushed, whispered conversation in the doorway. I see mother gasp and smile with pleasure and the skin on the back of my neck prickles.
“Aanya,” my father says, looking very pleased with himself. “We have had some wonderful news today.” His voice trembles with emotion. “I am delighted to tell you Ajit Gupta has asked for you. I am meeting with him tomorrow to discuss a dowry and set a date for your wedding.”
Feeling as though a heavy weight has settled on top of my head I stare at him, horrified. “Father! I cannot marry that wrinkled old man!”
I am rewarded for my outburst with sharp rebuke from father about my outright stubbornness and thoughtlessness, which would one day, he says, get me in trouble. Mother starts crying, wringing her hands.
“Shush with this nonsense both of you!” father orders sharply. “Enough. You will, Aanya, do as I bid. Ajit is Shatriya and very rich which means our family will be taking a step upward. I will hear no more on the matter.”
* * *
It is three evenings before the ceremony and the festivities are never-ending. The house is filled with excited, noisy aunties and squealing children. My eyes are downcast so not to show my feelings. In the middle of all this merriment, father arrives and passes a parcel to my mother. The Aunties go quiet; children are hushed. Mother steps in front of me.
“Aanya,” she says and I raise my head. In her shaking hands she holds the beautiful snake necklace with the emerald eyes. The room is silent while she places it around my neck and then erupts in an outburst of more squealing, crying and shouts of joy from the assembled guests, all clamouring around me to see the necklace. I stare stonily ahead. In a few days, if they all have their way, I will lose my youth to a man older and more stooped than my father; the gold necklace I coveted will be nothing more than a heavy yoke around my slender neck, there to remind me of what I foolishly wished for. I run my hand to the back of my neck; feel the clasp. Easy to undo, no safety chain.
I feign tiredness, when actually I have never felt more alive, more energised in my entire life, and mother laughingly orders me to bed. In the silence of my room I quickly pack the least clothes possible and check the time. One hour to wait and then I will be gone. I undo the necklace, lie it on my pillow and sit down to wait. My heart pounds with excitement and love.
I adore Bimal Kumar. He makes me feel like a princess. And he has assured me we can live a happy life away from our controlling parents in faraway England, which is where we are going, where we will marry he says, and bring up our children to enjoy a life of freedom. His brother there will make us welcome until we find a home of our own.
“Go along with whatever your parents tell you to do, Aanya,” Bimal had urged. “It is the only way we can do this. If your father or brothers suspect anything we will be stopped.”
I cried that day outside school, told him I didn’t think I could do it, but he said he had faith in my strength and our love for each other.
And here I am. I have gone along with everything to bring me to this moment in time, which will change my life forever. The note I have written to my parents tells them I love them dearly, but love someone else more, that I hope one day they will forgive me, for I will do nothing dishonourable when I leave my home. I promise them that I will marry my beloved Bimal in a legal ceremony before we live together. I kiss the note and place it next to the necklace.
A small stone sails through the open window landing on the floor and I run to look out.
“Bimal! Oh, my love,” I whisper.
I see his white teeth as he smiles. “Aanya,” he says quietly. “Come, all is ready.”
Fleetingly I think of my mother’s hurt and upset, my father’s anger, my brothers’ shame, but Bimal means more than all of this. With one last look around the familiar room I sling the bag onto my shoulder climb through the window and slither down through the overgrown hibiscus to land in my love’s arms.