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Happy Girls

A Girl Called Hira

Hira, a  childhood playmate is banished to the village and forced into child marriage on account of a misdemeanour by the author. Even after several decades, the author is unable to shrug off her sense of guilt on this account. Ranjit Powar narrates an interesting anecdote from her childhood.

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Life for a kid growing up in an army family could be lonely. A soldier could be stationed anywhere – out in the hills, in remote, sparsely inhabited areas with few other families or cantonments still waiting to set up a school. It sometimes meant that I had to get home-schooled and fill in the vast vacuum caused by a lack of playmates by turning to books, drawing and talking to pet dogs, who were a permanent feature of the household.

The ancient city of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, famous for triggering the war for independence against the British Raj in 1857, was one of the better stations one could hope for. My father was allotted an old bungalow adjacent to ‘Ashok ki Laat’, one of the pillars set by King Ashoka inscribed with Buddhist scriptures. This old bungalow stood on an acre of land, with two paved inner roads flanked by tall Jamun trees leading up to the house. The trees were laden with juicy, purple fruit during the season, many of which fell to the ground, bursting open to spread purple patches. The garden and fruit trees were irrigated by a small well, which was totally out of bounds for the children.

The tall, heavy, cast-iron gates on either side of the inner roads opened out to the two city roads that ran on either side of the premises. The cream-coloured house had a double roof with red shingles and a veranda running around it. There was a ‘Gol kamra’ in the centre surrounded by other rooms, with a hidden loft on the roof. The floors were beautifully patterned in multi-coloured geometric and floral designs. There was a row of staff quarters on the rear side of the property, housing the dhobi, the cook, the ayah, the sweeper and the gardener.

Hira was beautiful. Going back more than half a century, I still recall her heart-shaped face with deep black eyes, a mole on the left side of her chin, and thick black hair plaited and tied in a red ribbon. She never wore frocks as I did but mismatching salwar kameez. Class awareness seems to be imbibed from one generation to another without being taught. Hira seldom showed visible emotions like anger, excitement or despair. She generally wore a placid expression, spoke when spoken to, rarely challenged me even in play, and was mainly content to follow my directions. She would readily play at whatever I chose and follow the given role. So, I loved Hira.

Hira did not go to school and was adept at household chores like sweeping and rolling out rotis at age eight when I was not even allowed to enter the kitchen for fear of scorching myself accidentally. When we played at make-believe houses, Hira rolled out chapatis from kneaded mud while I brought little branches to set out a garden around a miniature brick house. She seemed to know many intriguing stories that I was ignorant about.

“Don’t ever go into the gol kamra after dark.”


Her voice dropped to a whisper. “My grandfather says that ghosts still live in the loft.”

I looked fearfully in the direction of the gol kamra.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. My grandfather said so. The ghosts cry out for water sometimes when it’s very hot.”

Straining our ears for sounds, we could often catch the cooing and flapping of pigeons who had colonised the loft, our hearts beating faster for hearing the ghosts! I steered clear of the gol kamra after that, hoping that the trapdoor in the roof was strong enough to keep the spirits in their dwelling place.

It was a sunny winter afternoon when I returned from school to find a lot of commotion near our boundary wall by the road leading to the iconic Mehtab Cinema. A row of large cage wagons had halted by the roadside. They were pulled by camels, now detached from the wagons for a rest. I could see the gipsy owners putting up a small shabby tent and unloading some cooking utensils and cloth bundles. A cacophony of animal grunting, squealing and growling noises could be heard from the cages. What a thrilling drama in the dull routine of a child’s life! I hurriedly gulped down my lunch, calling out to Hira to share the excitement.

“Hira, have you seen the animals in huge cages by the road? And the tents and strange-looking people? Let’s go and see them.”

“But Memsahib said not to go near the gates. She will get angry.”

“Oh, don’t be such a coward. Mama and Papa are taking a siesta. No one will even see us. I bet you have never seen such animals or people before. Come, or I will go without you.”

Hira looked over her shoulder hesitatingly, then followed me to the boundary wall of the house, a row of hibiscus bushes running along its length, interspersed with some bel trees. We crept through the bushes to peep at this newly sprung gipsy colony, staring wide-eyed at a pair of striped hyenas pacing to and fro in a cage, white and black baboons in another, and a monstrous black Himalayan bear in a third one. There was a terrible stench from the unclean cages, but we did not mind. Two women dressed in colourful ghagra choli sat on their haunches, cooking a meal on a chullah made by placing a couple of bricks together. They wore numerous bangles up to their elbows, thick silver anklets and had tattoos on their faces. Two little girls looked back at us curiously, pointing out and giggling. They minded a restless toddler and a howling baby, both naked waist downwards. The men wore oversize turbans, dhotis and jackets and earrings. They had impressive handlebar moustaches and kohl-lined eyes. One of them saw us and smiled.

“Will you like to see the animals from close up?”

I hurriedly shook my head in a no. Hira tugged at my shirt.

“Let’s go back.”

There was pandemonium in the house. We had been missed, and a hunt was initiated. Disturbing the holy siesta hour of my parents made the situation worse. Hira’s mother Devaki had found us missing and raised the alarm.

“Haven’t you been prohibited from going near the boundary wall? Don’t you know that these gypsies kidnap children? They could put you in a sack and disappear before anyone even knows! You are grounded. You will not go to the movie at the club today.” Mama shook me by the arm.

She was scary when angry, and this was beyond cruel. I had waited eagerly for this movie, “Striped Trip.”

“But it was not I who wanted to go near the wall. It was Hira. She kept asking me to come and see the animals. I refused and told her we were not allowed to go to the boundary wall, but she kept insisting till I agreed. I accompanied her only because I did not want her to go alone.”

For a while, Hira looked at me incomprehensibly. Then she hung her head and said nothing. Devaki gave her a tight slap and dragged her away by the arm.

“Look at this naughty girl! Where will you land up in life if you do not learn to obey?”

I was taken to the club for the movie that evening but was too distraught to enjoy it. I did not even ask for chips and Vimto, my favourite milk and rose drink. I was ashamed and did not call Hira to play with me for the next few days. I saw her sweeping the front yard of her house from afar one day and went in to avoid meeting her eyes.

A whole week passed, and I was still agonising over how I should make up with Hira. Should I say sorry to her? The punishment would be harsh if my parents found out about my lie. Should I call her and pretend that nothing had happened? Would she come? Maybe she would. She never refused me anything.

“Stop daydreaming and finish your homework fast.” My mother placed a glass of milk on my table.

I rushed through my homework and made my way toward Hira’s house. I was not allowed to enter the staff quarters and called out her name from a distance.


No one replied.


I called out louder. No reply.

Teli Ram, the gardener, came out from the adjacent quarter.

“Bebi ji, Hira is not here. She has gone with her parents to their village.”

“Gone to her village? All of a sudden? But why?”

“Her marriage has been fixed.”

My mouth hung open in shock and grief. I rushed home to mama.

“Teli Ram says Hira’s parents have taken her to the village to get married!”

“Yes, they have.”

“But she is just as old as I am! How can they marry her? Why did no one tell me? How could she leave without meeting me?”

“I cannot speak for her. I did try to speak to Devaki about it, but it’s useless. In their community, they do get their girls married at a young age. Don’t be upset. They might come back.”

Hira never came back. She left me to carry the weight of my guilt long after I was a big girl and had lost fascination for caged animals.

A Girl Called Hira: Welcome
Ranjit Powar

Author of 'Dusk over the Mustard Fields' and 'Living a Good Life', Ranjit Powar writes freelance and reviews books for newspapers, most often with her dog Teddy sprawled next to her desk. After serving in the Punjab Civil services, she presently runs a non-profit organization, Nishan Educational Trust, training school teachers in psychological orientation in pedagogy. Deeply involved with humanitarian issues and cross-border peace efforts, she hopes to resume her second passion soon – travelling.

A Girl Called Hira: Text
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