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A Smile from the past and other stories

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A TRICK OF THE MOONLIGHT

Yashpal Singh lowered his eyes and coughed nervously. He could still hardly

believe the words which were ringing in his ears.

“Times change,” his future father-in-law had said, “and we must change with the times, and not still bow to silly outworn customs. It is only right that you and Sita should see each other before you marry. There was no opportunity for you to meet previously, so you must certainly do so now.” Then, seeing the protest forming itself on his wife’s lips, he added almost sharply. “My dear wife, the time is coming when all young people will be choosing their life-partners for themselves as they do in the west. Kindly remember Lakshmi.”

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His wife’s lips trembled and her eyes filled with tears.

“You should not talk of such things now,” she almost whispered. “It is unlucky!”

“Nonsense!” I am reminding you for your own sake before there is another tragedy,” but already his wife had turned away and was hurrying into her daughter’s room.

Dr. Rathi turned back to the young man with a reassuring smile.

“You must not mind my wife,” he said. “She tends to be old-fashioned and clings to old customs, while we who have seen more of the world realize that a custom is not necessarily good because it is old. Sita is looking forward to meeting you. Go and wait for her on the verandah and she will come out to you, and you can talk without restriction.

And so it was that Yashpal Singh found himself standing, a little dazed and nervous, on the brink of meeting for the first time the girl who was shortly to become his wife. As if in a dream he turned his footsteps in the direction of the verandah, vaguely aware of the ringing of a distant telephone, and that the doctor had left the room to answer it. Outside on the verandah, the rays of the setting sun lent further colours to the banks of carefully potted flowering shrubs which he had already admired upon his arrival. He sat down upon a comfortable, well-cushioned chair, and gazing out over the smooth, well-tended lawn, prepared with as much patience as possible, to wait.

Already a dreamer, and something of a sentimentalist, Yashpal let his mind run over the future – a future in which he and Sita wandered happily together through a dream world in which there were no worries, rumors of wars or money shortages to disturb their marital bliss. His mind ran on happily covering the

years, till he suddenly awoke to reality and to the fact that time was passing, but that still no Sita had appeared. He rose from his chair restlessly, uncertain what to do. He would make himself look foolish, he felt, were he to go back into the house to look for her. Dr. Rathi’s instructions had been quite clear. “Go and wait for her on the verandah”, he said. “She will come out to you.”

Restlessly he paced the verandah. What in the world could have happened? The girl surely couldn’t be dressing all this time? What could he do in any case but keep on waiting? The sun had already gone down for some time, and the moon had taken its place. How much longer would he be expected to remain patiently waiting for her?

It was at this moment that he suddenly turned to find a slim girlish figure, standing rather shyly at the end of the verandah. Even in the moonlight he recognised her at once from the photograph he had been sent of Sita. His annoyance vanished, and he turned towards her with out-stretched hands. To his surprise she moved away from him out onto the moonlit lawn. He hesitated, rebuffed, but the next moment saw that she was beckoning to him. He followed, completely puzzled. Her behaviour was unorthodox to say the least of it, but what lay behind?

By this time the girl had reached a seat under the spreading deodar tree which cast its shadow over half the lawn. She did not sit down, however, but stood beside it, shy and hesitating. Quietly Yashpal made his way towards her. He must gain her confidence, he decided, and assure her that she had nothing to fear. He sat down on the seat.

“Please sit with me and let us talk,” he said gently.

To his surprise the girl sank down on the grass at his feet, and buried her face in her hands.

“At last!” she cried softly, “At last!”

He was quite ready to match her mood with his.

“We have waited a long time to meet, I know,” he said, “But now that we have met at last, I for one am not disappointed!”

She raised her face to his, and in the moonlight he saw that her cheeks were wet. For a moment he sat in silence unable to take his eyes off the lovely pale face, and large dark eyes still glittering with tears. Her photograph had not shown half her beauty, he decided.

“But why do you weep?” he asked. “This is surely no time for weeping!”

“I have waited so long!” her voice like a sigh, “so very long!”

He bent down to take her hand, but she slipped away from him and rose to her feet. He rose with her, and noticed that her height nearly equaled his own.

“I must go now,” she whispered softly, “But I can go happy – so happy at last!”

And then almost as though blown away on a breath of wind she left him, and was swallowed up once more in the darkness of the verandah. Like one in a dream he made his way towards the gate and back to his hotel.

The wedding was over with all its noise and excitement, the friends and relations, the presents, the laughter and the tears. Alone together at last, Yashpal allowed himself to turn and look at the lovely face of his bride. It was strange, but now in her different dress, she did not seem to be so tall.

“You are as lovely by day-light as you are by moon-light!” he mused. “Only somehow you do not seem quite the same.”

The girl opened her eyes wide.

“Not the same? What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well – you do not seem to be so tall, for one thing,” he went on. “It must have been just a trick of the moonlight, I suppose” he added lightly.

“Yashpal – what are you talking about?” You have never seen me by moonlight!” the girl cried.

It was Yashpal’s turn to look amazed.

“But Sita – the day we first met! That evening a week before the wedding?”

Sita shook her head vigorously.

“You never saw me,” she said. “My father wanted us to meet, but my mother wouldn’t allow me to show myself to you.”

“But I tell you, I saw you,” he still protested. “It was the same evening that I arrived from Bombay. I waited for you on the verandah. Your father went off and left me, and I waited alone for a long time, and then suddenly you came and ran out onto the lawn by that big tree in the moonlight.”

Sita’s eyes grew still rounder.

“By the big tree! Laksmi – it must have been Laksmi whom you saw!”

“But who is Lakshmi?” he asked, still bewildered.

“Sit down,” she said gently, “I think you had better hear the whole story of Lakshmi, and hear it now.”

“Please tell me,” he encouraged.

“Well it all happened a very long time ago,” she began. “Lakshmi was my eldest sister. She was supposed to be very beautiful. She fell in love with the brother of one of our school friends, and he with her, but my parents would not hear of their marrying.”

“Why?”

“They had some other plans for her, I think. Besides, the very fact that they were in love put my mother against him. However, in spite of this they continued to meet in secret. There was a wall between the verandah and the deodar tree in those days, and they used to meet every evening under the tree but out of sight of the house. Then one day they were discovered. Both my parents and his were very angry, and the boy was forced to write a letter saying that he would never visit her again. That was when the tragedy happened.”

“Tragedy”?

“Yes. It seems that Laksmi wrote back saying that she couldn’t live without him, and that he must come again somehow, and she would go on waiting for him until he did. The letter was intercepted and of course he never came.

“What did your sister do?”

“She waited about a month, and then I suppose she must have decided that he couldn’t be coming, because she went out and hanged herself from the deodar tree.”

For a moment Yashpal was too overcome to speak.

“It was awful!” the young voice beside him went on. “Of course I was only very young so I wasn’t told anything about it at the time, but I believe my mother nearly went mad with grief. She wanted to have the tree cut down, but my father wouldn’t allow it. He said that Lakshmi wouldn’t have wanted it. It was not until several months later that one of my cousins saw her first.

“Saw her? You mean Lakshmi?”

“Yes. She was sitting under the tree, crying her heart out. My cousin was terribly upset.”

“Did anyone else see her?”

“Oh yes – other people have from time to time. Once a new mali my father had engaged ran away and wouldn’t stay because of the lady who was always waiting under the tree.”

“And what about you? Did you ever see her?”

“Not exactly, but I was conscious of her being with me once. I was sitting on the lawn looking at your photograph, and then quite suddenly I seemed to feel her beside me. After that I heard her as well.”

“What did she say?”

“Little sister, may you never be anything but happy. I will try to find my own lost happiness again, through you!”

“And so she shall,” Yashpal said earnestly, “But also one day she will find her own happiness as well!

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