“Saraswati, where are you? How do you get lost in two rooms?” Gopal’s voice rose, sending a chill down her spine. Of late, he had been losing his temper frequently. After their daughter, Asha, had eloped with Brijesh, the boy next door, all Gopal had done was carp at his wife. “It is your fault. You did not keep a check on her!”

“As if you did!” was the retort that danced on her lips, but she did not have the courage to bring it out. Memories of black eyes, purple bruises and bloody lips kept her tongue under control. Every step she took was fraught with danger. She never knew when the next blow would land, like an unexpected missile.

“Saraswati, I am losing patience!” She rushed to the veranda where her lord and master sprawled on the cane chair, legs flung out on its spindly arms.

“Sorry… I was cooking. Did you want something?”

“Yes, a new wife! Is it possible to get one?” he sneered, his black eyes gazing at her with something akin to dislike.

Saraswati stood, head bowed. Experience had taught her it was better not to provoke him. He was as deadly as a cobra when clear-headed, easier to handle when he had quaffed a few drinks. Then he would turn mildly amorous for a few moments, turning into the man she had married. Five minutes later, he would be in dreamland, his snores punctuating the silence in myriad pitches that kept her awake, wishing she were dead.

It was tea that he wanted. She scurried into the kitchen to make the perfect cup, strong black tea infused with ginger and cardamom. Her thoughts went to their handsome neighbour, Chand, who was a bachelor because he could not afford a wife. Hurriedly, she shook the forbidden thoughts away.

The whole neighbourhood was gearing up for Holi, with coloured powders, new clothes and of course, bucketfuls of ‘bhang’ potent enough to keep people merry. Saraswati wore a red sari, one which had suffered many Holis, but was bright enough to hide the evidence. She made a plate of ‘laddoos’ with ghee and raisins and placed it on their tiny wooden table. They were Gopal’s favourite.

As she bent down to pick up a spoon, she winced. Last night had been worse than normal. Gopal had picked on her for the bland vegetables that she had placed before him.

“Is this even food? Go feed it to the cows!” he had snarled, throwing the steel plate at the wall. He had taken a worn-out belt and beaten her till she was black and blue. The pain had dulled, the bruises would heal. For the umpteenth time, she wished she could die.

The ‘bhang’ had done its trick. Gopal snored into the night, an uncouth sight.

Saraswati stood over him, her red sari bright enough to hide the evidence.

The kitchen knife flashed, swooping downwards, her ticket to freedom.

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