Suppose that you are a woman born into a well-to-do family and that you are slated to marry a man from another well-to-do family so that the two families might become even more well-to-do and thus doubly powerful in the Indian city of Nagpur in the year A.D. 1784. Suppose you do not wish to marry this man because he is twelve years your junior; in fact, he is not a man but a mere boy of fourteen. You are a woman of twenty-six, and the only reason you have not married before now is that your parents began to scheme for this arrangement as early as the boy’s birth because they coveted his family’s wealth. You have been on the back burner all these years, unavailable to other men. Worthy men too. And ones that you might be able to love.
If your name is Hita (meaning “lovable”) and you lived in the Indian city of Nagpur in the year A.D. 1784, then this must be your story.
Your betrothed, who has yet to show the first wisps of a beard on his silky chin, is named Mukul (meaning “bud”), and though he knows that the two of you have nothing in common, he is enamored of you and finds your body appealing, voluptuous, worth owning, which is the nature of marriage, according to Mukul’s father. The idea of letting this little bud ravage you in the nuptial bed is the most repulsive thing you have ever envisioned. Especially when you know that you are in love with another, a man of a lower caste, named Samrat (meaning “emperor”).
Marrying the ironically named Samrat is beyond impossible. It is abominable to nature.
There is not much you can do to avoid the inevitable, but one night several weeks before the wedding you experience a dream that offers a bit of hope. In the dream appears the radiant face of a woman you recognize to be the local herbalist. She is looking upon you with such sympathy and care that you become certain that she has the solution to your difficulty, and upon the dawn you dress and rush to her shop in the crowded center of Nagpur. In real life, her manner and countenance are nothing like those of the dream. Instead, she is rather terse and demeaning, this old woman who had never married and must carry the load of disappointment with her every day. You believe in the power of dreams, however, and you explain your problem.
“A woman,” she says in response, already crumbling the tiny dried leaves of a pungent herb upon a square of paper, “is obliged to marry the man chosen for her by her father.”
“I know,” you say, “but –”
“How dare you hope to defy him. Your father. And how dare you wish to decline a young man’s offer.” She leers at you as she places the herbs on her scale. “Nonetheless, it is not my duty to inflict sense on you. I am in business.”
You pay her for the herbs as she whispers instructions. You are to take a bit of this as a tea four times a day for the next four days. It will render you ill. You will be seen by a physician within the week because your survival will be in question, though in actuality you will not be in mortal danger. This is the mystery of the herb. The physician shall declare that you will live but that you have been rendered barren.
“Perfect,” you whisper, not so much to her but to the heavens.
“Perhaps,” she says, “if you believe that being rendered barren is not too high a price to pay to avoid a sanctioned marriage. And you will be rendered barren. It is no illusion. This too is the mystery of the herb.”
To be able to love Samrat is worth any price short of death. Such is your belief, though you keep the thought to yourself and leave the shop encouraged.
According to the herbalist’s instructions, you begin that very day, taking some of the foul-tasting tea as soon as you get home. Within hours you start to feel ill, and after the third and fourth doses you experience a draining weakness and develop a fever. It is all you can do to take the additional doses over the next three days, and after the final dose you fall into a febrile sleep, unaware even that the physician has examined you and has declared you to be under a spell.
When you awaken (told by your devastated mother that a week has passed since you fell asleep), the news is exactly as the herbalist said it would be. The physician has declared you barren. The father of Mukul has withdrawn the offer of marriage. You are free.
As soon as you are well enough to move about, you dress and run to the home of Samrat. He stands in the doorway, refusing to invite you in. I might have loved you, he says as you look up into his harsh eyes, the eyes of a condemning emperor, but something sinister has rendered you barren. We have no life if we cannot have children. My wife shall bear me many. Now go away.
This, some would say, is the cruelty of nature. Wishes can never vanquish fate.
Janet Barrows is a writer and technical editor from Chicago. She and her partner enjoy international travel … via Google Street View. In fact, you can get a glimpse of modern Nagpur here.