"Soodha will you work or just scamper around in your red 'ghaghra' (skirt) and 'choli' (blouse)? Cover your head with a 'dupatta' (scarf). You bring shame to us!" yelled a middle-aged woman. Soodha was a vivacious 21-year-old who wore colourful dresses and heavy white metal earrings. Some evenings, she slipped a yellow 'genda' (marigold) flower behind her ear. At the age of 10 in 1931, I watched her from our office window in Tandalianwala (now in Pakistan). She was as pretty as a princess. I nicknamed her the 'genda-kudi' (marigold girl).
Now, childhood is a magnificent phase. Every day is an adventure. You watch new events unfold around you. You do not understand everything. So you just preserve situations in the recesses of the consciousness. Today's happenings gradually metamorphose into memories in later years. Then, there is a time to unravel events you witnessed as a child.
My father insisted I complete my daily homework in our office. As luck would have it, my desk was adjoining a window. Thus, my childhood's amazing years were enriched with a window overlooking the 'mandi' (market).
I saw migrant labourers arrive annually to tend to the wheat crop after the harvest. About 300 men and women came from Surat.
They worked in wholesale shops throughout the day, cleaning the crop, packing it in gunny bags and covering the mounds with tarpaulin sheets at dusk.
Sitting by my window, I frequently observed Kailash, the son of our neighbour Lala Parbat, chatting animatedly with Soodha or her father. Much later, I learnt that the flower behind Soodha's ear was a signal to Kailash that they could meet after dusk under the banyan tree near Lala Karodhi Mal's abandoned brick kiln. The absence of the marigold meant Soodha was unable to come. So, Kailash would hang around our compound daily to learn if his sweetheart had positioned a marigold behind her ear or not. I was intrigued to see this budding romance between a migrant labourer's daughter and the son of a prominent businessman.
However, I was not the only one who was intrigued by the mystery of the occasional marigold flower behind Soodha's ear.
One dusky evening, as Kailash waited under the banyan tree for Soodha, two shadows pounced on him from the thick foliage of the tree. The shadows rained blows on him. He fought back. But the shadows were unrelenting. Kailash fled. He reached his house to find his nose bleeding profusely. He had a fractured finger.
The next day, all migrant labourers, led by the two shadows, who were Soodha's father and brother, met my father. They protested that the vagabond youngsters of our town were debasing their women. They threatened to depart. My father hurried to Lala Parbat's shop and counselled him to send his son to Lahore for some months. Lalaji saw wisdom in the counsel. The alternative was to face a massive walkout by the migrant labourers. The mounds of wheat would putrefy. To save further ignominy, Kailash was despatched to Lahore to repair his finger and mend a broken heart.
So the wheat crop survived that year in Tandalianwala. However, I never saw Soodha after that day. Perhaps her family sent her home. The marigold girl just disappeared. I was sad.
After that day which cost Kailash a finger, no young man in town dared to look at any migrant dusky girl. Kailash never returned.
Eighty-three years on, I still wonder why religion, caste and community play an overriding role in alliances between youngsters in India. Inter-caste and inter-community marriages do take place but liaisons among boys and girls of different religions and communities are still frowned upon. Sometimes they lead to family feuds, riots and even honour killings!
However, even today when I see a marigold flower, I am reminded of Soodha, my childhood 'genda-kudi'.