Adori wasn’t always a shadow. When her husband confined her to a window-less room immediately after her twins were born, she remembers sliding into a numbed state, too garbled to comprehend it wasn’t her, it was him.
As she stretched her body over the branch of the banyan this morning, gripped a prop root for balance, she thought of his disgust at unveiling his bride on wedding night. His horror discovering her face too dark for his fancy, features androgynous; how he shouted he had been tricked into this arranged union.
Adori, instantly hateful of the color of her skin, the blunt features she was born with, the coarse hair on her body, everything she couldn’t possibly change, begun to scrub and brush and wash. She massaged with the silt of the river to make her skin paler, lighter, until it itched and burned, and her body became translucent like a shadow, until she could no longer see it herself in the room she was punished in.
He had said, you can. And Adori had said, yes, I can. Then stripping down to almost-bareness, had drunk the poison tumbler he had brought, but like an apparition it hadn’t affected her; instead, she had only feigned death when the in-laws carried her out and placed her on the pyre on a violent stormy night.
Gently laid there under quivering skies, she soon became restless, and unable to decide what she intended to do from here on, what of her babies, thrashed from side to side.
She rises, the men had yelled, and thinking that her spirit had risen, had bolted from the spot, after hurriedly lighting the flame.
Adori remembers the fire licking her, remembers climbing down the high stack of cremation logs, and her floating on winds under the lightning blitz. She had been hiding on the banyan tree since.
Presently, she heard footsteps below — the Begum of Awadh and her entourage. Adori slithered on the branch farther up and away, towards the tip. Attempting to cover herself with the large, leathery, glossy banyan leaves, she caused a commotion, made the branch creak and the passers-by to look up and discover her.
“You’re famished. So awfully pale! What’s your name?”
Adori wrapped the shawl the Begum offered, joined the Begum in the palace.
She was soon part of the women’s battalion that the Begum had been raising to fight the British. Who’s afraid to die a second time?
Limbs detached lay strewn on the red earth around them. Spray of bullets riddled the wall of the Residency — it looked like a sieve — yet Adori, and her sister-warriors donning men’s clothing, would not budge. Six months since the local rebellion against British East India company had been raging, scores dead and the Gomti river swollen with blood. The stand-off had already claimed far more than either side had imagined. Campbell’s Regiment was bent on capturing the Begum’s Sikandar Bagh palace, and the women were desperate.
Enemy soldiers were closing in from all sides. She could see them now marching up the embankment. She retreated until the red brick wall of the palace precincts, on which a peepal tree had its stranglehold. She climbed it stealthily and aimed her rifle at the advancing red coats.
Her finger pressed the trigger, repeatedly, the magazine was full, and the muzzle sprayed death. She was prepared for the retaliatory fire. It didn’t take longer than, maybe, a minute.
The Begum and East India are long gone.
But who can kill shadows?
Adori stays in the tiny shack under the same peepul tree by the palace wall, her kids with her. She is often cutting and curating shadows of varying dimensions to amuse herself.
The warrior lives on — a patina-covered figure in Sikandar Bagh Square.
Mandira Pattnaik’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash International Short-Short Magazine, Atlas & Alice, Citron Review, Watershed Review, Passages North, Amsterdam Quarterly, Bangor Literary, and Timber Journal among other places. Find more of her writings at mandirapattnaik.wordpress.com. On Twitter @MandiraPattnaik.