Volume 31, Number 3

An Auspicious Time

Jennifer Wang

She stood on the edge of the jowar field remembering the secret Amba had told her last night. The rising sun cast a golden glow on the tips of the sorghum, bringing them to life. Their corn ears bobbed in the gentle breeze, their long graceful leaves like the arms of dancers at rest.

Could it be true? Janakibai wondered as she hoisted the clay vessel she had just filled from the village well onto her head. It stood over half her height, but she knew just how to position it so her slender frame could bear the weight. She used one hand to steady it and the other to lift her cotton sari as the red clay dirt was hard to wash out.

Janakibai had only heard stories of the Chinamen who lived in the big cities, many of them willing to take local women as wives rather than remain celibate. She had never seen one in the flesh before. Amba told her the Chinamen all wanted to have many children so they liked their wives young. The younger the better. Janakibai wondered how her elder sister would take the news. But Rhadabai never defied their parents’ wishes. Sometimes Janakibai wished she did. It would make it easier for the rest of them.

As Janakibai walked home, she returned the greetings called out by women just beginning the long journey. They trotted easily and jauntily with their vessels still empty. Only she liked to come so early, so she could tread softly in a world still sleeping. Soon her worries dissipated as she watched gigantic dragon flies chase each other overhead, their rice paper wings flitting red and silver. The heavy rains had just ended, and all around her the forest teemed with life. The shiny brown mohawks of crested grebes bobbed as they hunted insects in the mud, and the civet’s spotted tail was already a distant blur as he ran from her and the approach of day.

To Janakibai, god was not in the temples where her family gathered to worship, but in the trees and wind and earth. As she walked, she felt the firmness of the ground under her bare feet, knew she was not separate from, but a continuation of it. She was oddly aware of the transience of her mortal form. As a little girl, she had grieved over dead sparrows and lizards she found along trails, watched as day by day they disappeared back into the earth with the help of vultures, rodents and tireless ant colonies. She learned to accept death as the natural consequence of birth, knew the limits of what humans could see and understand, and recognized no punishment could last beyond the brief sentence of our lives.

Maybe that’s why when she first noticed him, she was not afraid.

He had a full head of hair as black and luminous as crows’ feathers and a beard that fell past his shoulders. He harvested the jowar as it ripened, a bonded laborer like all the other Dalits in the village. He glanced at her as he tied off a large burlap sack he just filled. His hands were callused and rough, his body lean and muscled. His eyes rested on her just a moment too long. He would have known she was the headmaster’s daughter, untouchable to him.

Though her father held one of the most esteemed positions in the village, Janakibai had never seen the inside of a classroom. Only her two brothers were allowed to attend school, making their father beam with pride whenever they brought home high marks. She, unlike her sisters, hadn’t even been able to learn to read and write. To her, the swirls and squiggles of Kannada were hieroglyphics on a cave wall, beautiful but indecipherable. She did not have the patience to sit still and practice carving the curved script in the sand, preferring instead to run through the woods listening for the pitter-patter of black buck hooves and glimpsing their magnificent twisted horns and masked faces between branches thick with leaves.

Each morning as she rose with the roosters at dawn, she would wonder if he would be there. And he always was—sometimes so close to the path she could see beads of sweat already forming on his brow before the sun had risen, other times far away so she could only make out a dark flash standing and stooping, up and down, again and again. But no matter where he was, she always felt his penetrating stare against her skin, knew he was watching her in between every movement. Hiding what could not be.

Then one day she couldn’t find him no matter how hard she strained her eyes, the yellow and brown sorghum heads blurring together. Just as she began to panic, wondering if someone had noticed and reported his indiscretion, she heard a voice with the deep ring of a tabla from behind her.

“May I know your name?”

Startled, she lost her footing and the clay vessel on her head tipped. Without hesitating, he lifted one hand and caught the curved upper rim, balancing the entire vessel as if it were a kitchen pot. She pretended not to be flustered, bent, and motioned for him to place the vessel back on her head. He steadied it until she stood. Then without even a glance in his direction, she murmured, “Janakibai.”

But as she walked away, he whispered without moving his lips, “Janakibai, my queen, it’s cooler before dawn, before the sun rises.”

For the rest of the day, her cheeks felt flushed. Rhadabai asked if she was feeling ill. Janakibai nodded, appreciating the excuse to sleep early. When her eyes opened next, she saw the moon was still out and the rooster asleep perched on the coop. She dressed, hoisted the clay vessel on her head and slipped away while the family slumbered on, her father’s deep snores punctuating the air in choked bursts.

Out on the trail, she could hear night animals still out, the hooting of the eagle owl and soft whirring of bats’ wings. She strained to listen for footsteps, wondered if she had misunderstood him. But just as she began to chide herself, a voice sounded at her back, deep and resonant.

“Janakibai.” It was not a question, but a statement, a suggestion. She wanted to turn and face him, but the clay vessel hindered her movement.

“Let me help you with that.” Before she could protest, he had lifted the vessel and placed it on his own head, still moving easily and freely, both hands at his side. “A girl like you shouldn’t have to carry water everyday like a donkey.”

“I don’t mind it. It allows me to be outside instead of trapped at home like my sisters, learning only enough so they can be good wives and mothers.”

“You don’t like learning?”

“I don’t have the patience for it. But I think Kannada is beautiful even though I cannot understand it, like someone trying to draw the trees and mountains.”

“I can teach you.”

“You know how to read?” Her voice could not mask her surprise.

“Yes, I once found a child’s workbook in the trash dump and kept it. I studied it in secret. I couldn’t risk my master finding out. I have to work many more years for my family’s freedom. I don’t know a lot, but enough to write your name.”

He stooped as if nothing were on his head and carved lines in the loose dirt with a twig. She crouched beside him, admiring the loops, some stopping and starting while others formed a complete circle, all perfectly even though he could not look at the ground.

“And your name?”

He drew more curves and spirals, whimsical as musical notes, then sounded out slowly “Aalok.”



“But isn’t it funny that I can only see you in darkness?”

“Better in darkness than not at all.” He stood and offered her his hand, palm up. She took it hesitantly, feeling the calluses against her fingertips. “The sky is getting light. We would be smart to part now.”

She nodded, kneeling to accept the vessel back on her head.

“When will I see you again?” he asked.

“I’m not sure. I don’t know how easy it will be to slip away.”


But she didn’t have time to answer as the lively chatter of approaching women forced her to run off.

That evening as her family sat down to eat dinner cross-legged in a circle on the earthen floor, her father asked Janakibai why she had left hours before the sunrise. She tried to hide the fear in her chest when she replied she had not felt well the day before so slept early and rose early. “But it is so much cooler before the sun rises. I think I will go early tomorrow as well.”

Her father’s brow wrinkled. “Just be careful. The nighttime can be dangerous for a girl alone.”

Soon Janakibai began to rise before dawn every morning to go to the well. And each time without fail at some point in her journey, she would hear his voice before detecting any sign that he was near. “You are as stealthy as a leopard,” she whispered one day, sensing he had come. When only silence met her words, she blushed, thinking her mind was playing tricks on her. But in the next moment, he murmured in her ear, “I’m even better at hiding.” She jumped, causing him to laugh in deep baritones. “Don’t be frightened. The vessel may fall,” he chided.

They both knew the risk they were taking by meeting every day and sensed that their time together would not be long. It would only take one villager to sound the alarm that he, born unfit to associate with the rest of society, was daring enough to desire a woman from an upper caste. Punishment for such a crime would be certain death, and gruesome stories of past transgressors, of couples burned, buried, or sliced up alive screaming for mercy, were enough to deter even the boldest of lovers.

But Janakibai and Aalok continued to meet despite the danger, drawn together by a powerful force that neither could resist. As summer turned to winter, the sun was rising later, giving the forbidden couple more time together, until one day Aalok took her by the hand and announced he had something to show her. He hid the clay vessel behind tall stands of jowar and dove into the strands of interlocking leaves. Hardy and thriving even in drought, the abundant heads of corn formed a natural canopy over them. Aalok navigated the sorghum as speedily as a field mouse, soon arriving at a small clearing. Janakibai could tell he had harvested this area first, far from the trail, preparing to bring her here.

“You once told me that you could only see me in darkness. Now we can be free to meet in the light of day.”

“But someone may see us. It’s far too risky.” She looked around nervously. But only the barely perceptible whisper of the jowar leaves met her straining ears.

“Sometimes you must trust in the gods to watch over you. That’s what I told my father when my mother had trouble during childbirth. She and the baby would have died if we had not persuaded Jaiprasad to loan us money for a doctor. But now my little brother is ten already, and still the debt is not repaid. My father worries we will carry it to our graves.”

“Aalok, just think of your family. What would they do if something were to happen to you?” She turned from him and prepared to retrace their steps, but he caught her by the arm.

“Jana,” he called her by her pet name for the first time. “At this very moment I can hear the grey mongoose nibbling holes in crocodile eggs along the river. Surely I will be able to detect an approaching person.”

She turned towards the murmur of running water but could not make out any other sound. Then with a skeptical look, she asked, “And what if you are distracted?”

“Jana, you must trust me. I would never let any harm come to you.”

Then he lay down and took her hand to guide her towards him. She hung back at first. She had never let a man touch her, was taught that only painted women, women unfit to be married, lay with men who were not their husbands. But as the wind picked up and drowned out any reminder of the outside world, her reservations blew away like the chaff after threshing. She could only see Aalok’s eyes and how shiny they were, realized he was crying. His fingers ran along her shoulders, his palm glided up and down her back, sweat making the motion smooth and effortless, leaving a streak of wetness on her skin. Even though he did not yet try to take off her sari, which already clung to her damp from the heat of their bodies, she felt as if nothing separated them when he held her to his chest.

Perhaps if their world had given them time for pleasantries, their encounter would have stopped there. But both knew this single moment might be all they would ever share, could easily cost their lives, and that heavy burden unleashed all restraint. Soon they touched and caressed each other with the freedom of wolves, becoming one body with the same breath and pulse, lying under the midnight blue sky that waiting for them did not yet show any sign of lightening. Then in a flurry of excitement followed by overpowering fatigue, the two drifted off to sleep.

The cry of a seagull woke Janakibai, and she jumped to her feet and gasped. The sun was at its apex, the sizzling heat hushing the world into an eerie silence. The bird circled in distress, having lost its way so far inland. Aalok lay next to her, his eyes closed and the corners of his mouth turned up slightly in the playful smile of a god. For a moment she worried that he was not rising. “Aalok,” she called again more urgently. This time he bolted up, startled. “Look at how high the sun is. We are doomed. I’m certain they have discovered us both to be missing already. What are we to do?”

She was shaking in fear, her tears wetting the parched ground. He tried to hide the terror that washed over him too, but when he spoke, there was a faint quiver in his voice. “You must go now to the dry river bed and lie there until someone finds you. Say you were following the cries of a spotted deer when you tripped over a loose rock and sprained your ankle. If they should accuse you of lying, you must be strong. Remember your life is at stake.” Then he took the red clay dirt and wiped it over her face and arms and against her white cotton sari until she looked as if she had been crawling on the ground. He guided her by the elbow through the thick stands of jowar, a maze that could easily swallow up a man who did not know his way. He walked quickly, the coarse leaves cutting into their arms. After ten minutes, he veered left and then showed her where the jowar field ended and the dry river bed began.

She turned toward him, her face already grieving. Even if they were fortunate enough to go undetected, she knew they could not see each other again. He took her hands in his and brought her close to him, placing his cheek against hers, feeling the velvet darkness of her skin.

“If the gods protect us, I will seek you out on the next full moon.” His breath along the nape of her neck was like the warm wind rustling the jowar.

“No, the risk is too great. They may just send me away, but you, they will certainly kill and not even wild animals can imagine the kind of death it will be.”

“Do not worry about me. I can disappear into the forest. I am a shadow they will not be able to find.” He clasped his fingers around her palms one last time and then gently guided her away from him.

Janakibai lay for hours until a group of men stumbled upon her as they returned from the fields close to sunset. By then, she did not have to pretend to be close to death, not having eaten or drunk the entire day and beaten by the sun’s unrelenting rays without the cover of shade. She told the men her story, and they carried her home, trailed by a movement in the fields that no one could see.

On the way, they met her father and brothers, who had been out searching for her and found the clay vessel tucked behind the tall jowar stand. After her mother helped bathe her and her sisters brought daal and chapati for her to fill her stomach, she regained her energy. Then her father, who had been on the roof deck smoking, came down, studying his daughter from afar without speaking. Janakibai tried not to look him in the eye. Her father had taught a countless number of children as the headmaster and had always been an expert at detecting those who tried to deceive him.

“You’ve grown up in these jowar fields. How did you lose your way? The well is in the opposite direction as the dry river bed.”

“I heard the cries of a wounded jinke. I left the clay vessel hidden so I could run after her, but even injured, she was too quick for me. I saw her scamper across the dry river bed dragging her back hind leg.” She struggled to keep her voice even.

“Which way did she run?”

“Towards the mountains where the sun sets. She had almost made it into the forest when I fell and lost sight of her. I stepped into a crevice and trapped my foot under a large rock. I managed to free myself but hurt my ankle.”

Her father fell silent, scrutinizing her face. She was grateful for the dim lighting in the main room. The rest of her family had all scattered in anticipation of this talk, her brothers on the roof deck and her mother and sisters in the tiny adjoining kitchen all straining to listen.

“These last few months you seem to be leaving earlier and earlier for the well. Once I woke startled by the cries of wolves nearby and noticed you were already gone. I was worried and did not fall back asleep. It was many hours before the sun’s rays appeared. Your mother seems to think you just have a love for the birds and trees that you do not have for chores or school work. That is fine, but every girl must grow up.”

He had been pacing around the room but now stopped beside the single window in their home, its aluminum frame rusted and falling off the mud wall. Outside, the full moon cast a long shadow of him on the floor. He gazed out, not looking at her, studying the jowar rustling in the dry wind.

“It’s been decided already. Rhadhabai will be married this winter to a Chinese businessman. Mr. Lee is older than her by two decades, but he has money, owns a shop in Bombay, and can even speak a little bit of Hindi. She is fortunate to have such a match. Her children will have many more opportunities there. Even though our school is the best in Athani, it cannot compare to a city education.”

“This is good news for Dede. I will be sure to congratulate her.” Janakibai worked hard to keep her face composed, not wanting to let on that this was the secret Amba, the matchmaker’s daughter, had already told her.

“Yes, and you can also congratulate yourself. Mr. Lee has a dear friend that is like a brother to him. Mr. Wang is also looking for a bride. You are a little bit young given his age, but I have decided it is too good a circumstance to let pass us. You will be married soon after Rhadabai, as she is the eldest and should be the first.” He couldn’t see her face but went on quickly, “It is an auspicious time for our family to send both of you off. The priest has told me so himself. And you will have your elder sister to guide you on the long journey, first five hours by bus to Belgaum, and then another half day’s journey to Bombay in the north. You should consider yourself fortunate. Most girls go off to their husbands’ homes crying and alone.”

He turned towards her, expectantly. She had no choice but to reply, “Yes, Papa, you always know what is best.” She wondered if Amba had known this all along but chose not to tell her. Or had it been decided at the last moment. Perhaps her father had paid the old matchmaker a visit, no longer trusting his headstrong daughter’s virtue.

Now he smiled at her, and his mood seemed to lift. “Jana,” he called her by her pet name, which he had not done in years, “I know you understand that our family’s honor is everything. Without it, we could be the richest family in the village, and yet we would have nothing.” For the first time, he walked close enough to peer into her face. “Before I promise you to another man, I must know if you have dishonored the Noddoni name.”

Janakibai felt her face redden, prayed her dark skin would mask the shame burning in her cheeks. Never in her life could she have imagined lying to her father. Though he had always been kind-hearted and indulgent with his daughters, she knew his fiercely proud and devout character and trembled to think what he might do if he were to discover her betrayal. But then she remembered Aalok’s words and suddenly felt a surge of strength as if he were near.

She looked her father in the eye and said, “No, Papa, I would never do such a thing. You have nothing to fear.”

“Good, that’s what I was expecting to hear. I hope you will understand that I must send your brothers to the dry river bed in the morning. I am sure they will find evidence of this injured jinke if she dragged her hind leg for such a distance.”


All that night, Janakibai stayed awake praying for the start of the monsoon rains. But at dawn, when she stepped outside, the skies were startlingly clear, the faint outline of disappearing stars still on the horizon. Rhadabai slipped past her with the clay vessel on her head and started off towards the well.

Once the sun rose, Janakibai watched with dread as her brothers left for the river bed. Heat began to build in the air, rising off the warm ground in clouds of vapor and dust. Janakibai started to feel dizzy and weak. So much anxiety gripped her that she had to sit down. Her mother asked with concern if she needed water. She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. Then her mother laid down a sleeping mat and urged her to rest her sprained leg. With guilt, Janakibai acquiesced. There was no clock in the house, and she lost track of time. She tried to close her eyes, longing for sleep to relieve her of her panicked state, but it would not come. Finally, she heard the tread of sandals in the dusty road, and her brothers stepped through the front door. Their faces gave away no emotion, neither disgust nor relief. They removed their shoes and retreated to the roof deck to speak to her father. Her mind anticipated a roar of outrage. She struggled to think of a coherent response, wondered if she should be honest and accept her fate, when her father suddenly appeared before her.

“Is your leg better today?”

“Yes, it is.” Her voice could barely be heard as she tried to hide her rising terror.

“As I’m sure you already know, the tracks were there. Your brothers saw them right away leading across the river bed into the forest. I know you will be sad to hear that they even found the spotted deer. Her remains were hidden in a thicket. It looked like a leopard hunted her down. With her injury, she would have been an easy target.”

Janakibai stared blankly at her father.

He assumed her stupor was grief for the deer. “Never mind the jinke. I know you have always had a fondness for our wild creatures, but it’s the natural way of life. And you have so much to look forward to. These next few months will be the most exciting in your life.” He beamed, then bent to kiss her cheek, a show of affection he had not showered on her since she was a young girl. As he departed, she overheard him instructing her sisters to do her chores for the day and make sure to lower their voices when they entered the main room.

She lay back, dazed and puzzled until her whirring brain began to slow and she realized with a start sitting up and staring outside the rusted aluminum window—its panes broken and cracked off by the wind long ago—that he must have been there that night, close enough to hear. The risk he had taken made her shiver even as sweat dribbled off her forehead and down the sides of her body. Had he been caught, his boldness would have required retaliation by the village, a restoration of order and decency, a show grotesque enough to be remembered for generations to come. Janakibai’s mother once told her the story of how an untouchable had been kidnapped by a mob from the prison where he was waiting to be hanged. He had been accused of falling in love with and kissing an upper-caste girl. When the police finally found him in the forest, he had been tied to a tree by the legs like a pig, his body open and flapping, oddly misshapen from all the organs that were missing, his eyes holes in his head.