Zulfika, The Indian Rapunzel 1

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Snap, a twig broke and landed right on the nose. The face in the water lost its shape as it wiggled with the small ripples. That face looked nothing like her, not with the hair cropped right up to the ears, like something had chewed it on all sides.

Zulfika sighed. It was time for action, not to mope and moan.  She had set the wheels in motion by escaping from her machan. Yes, the machan was a familiar place, but it wasn’t necessarily safer. She must see this through.

The young girl looked around her. Oh, that tall banyan tree would do. She shimmied up the hanging roots and pulled herself onto the tree. Right where the branches spread out, was a gaping hole. That was even better. No one could see it from down below. Zulfika pulled out a long black braid from her cloth bag and wound it up tight. A push here and a pull there, the braid slid nicely into the hole in the tree trunk. She patted her bag. She couldn’t bear to part with all her hair. Another long braid was still there.

Zulfika lowered herself and jumped to the ground. She must follow the river, like she had seen her mother do after every visit. No, she must stop thinking of the old woman as her mother. But she took the same path she’d seen the woman take, from up there, in her machan. Zulfika looked back one last time. What she’d believed to be a place of safety was really a prison.

The river widened as the two banks sprang apart, racing away from each other. A round coracle floated on the banks, a rope tethering it to a tree. “What if this is hers? Maybe I should walk…but, if I take it, I’ll get away from here much faster.” The thought of fleeing faster won and Zulfika waded over to the coracle.

The river current pulled the coracle away from the bank. She looked this way and that at dense green trees on both sides. Zulfika had no idea how much time had passed but the sun now shone from above. Was it the heat, the rocking movement of the water or the sameness of the trees that made her put her head down? We don’t know but there she was, fast asleep.

“Kiii! Kii! Kiii!”

Zulfika shielded her eyes as she opened them. Why were these birds so loud? Why was she rocking? The young girl rolled over and leaned on one hand. The boat had come to a stop amongst the reeds. She stared around her. Then coming to a decision, she grabbed a stick floating by the reeds and pulled herself closer to the shore.

Was she far enough? She swung her bag onto her shoulder and started on foot. When she came to the village, the sun dipped lower. Zulfika stood behind a tree and gazed at the houses. Was this the village she had to go to?

“If I stand here, I’ll never know! No one has ever seen me. If she’s told anyone about me, they won’t recognize me with my hair like this,” she told herself as she made her way to the houses. What had the woman said in her sleep?

“A large tree in the middle of the village…a house with beautiful white paintings on the wall…”

Zulfika’s eyes swept both sides of the street as she searched desperately for a house with white paintings on the wall. She was so tired and hungry. She found herself, by the steps to the temple. She sat down next to a girl and tried to make sense of it all.

“Here, would you like some?” The other girl turned to her, a pomegranate in her hand. Zulfika reached for it. “Thank you,” she said simply.

“Did you come for the fair?” The girl was curious. She knew everyone in her village. Who was this new girl?

“Fair? What was a fair?” Zulfika thought. “No, I came looking for someone,” she gulped her last words.

“Did you find her?” the girl asked again.

“No…!” Zulfika shook her head.

“Oh, you are new here, aren’t you? My mother knows everyone in our village. Come, Come with me. I’m sure my mother will help you,” the girl went on. It was a quick decision. The other girl sensed that there was some mystery about Zulfika.  “My name is Gita. What is your name?”

“Oh, I’m Zu…Zuna.”

Gita’s mother was taken aback when she heard her daughter’s request. “There is no tree in the middle of our village,” she told the girls. But she agreed that this young girl could not be sent away on her own. So, Zulfika shared Gita’s room at night.

The following day, the two girls wandered all around the village. No, there was no tree in the middle of the village, and no sight of a house with white wall paintings near it.

“This is not the village I’m looking for. I must leave tonight and make my way to other villages,” Zulfika thought with a sinking feeling. In just one day, she’d realized how much she had to learn about the real world. For the first time in her life, she’d met someone else her age. Their friendship was a comfort, but she had other things to do.

So, in the quiet hours of the night, Zulfika pushed the door open and made her way to the river. The moon shone in the clear skies, lighting her path.  She sat down on the riverbank, unsure what to do.  A rustle of leaves sounded very near.  Her heart in her throat, Zulfika turned around.

“Going somewhere?” Gita stood beside her.

“Oh, I nearly died of fright! How did you come by so quietly?” Zulfika’s hand went to her heart.

Gita sat beside her and waited.

“My name is Zulfika! I…I used to live in a machan in a forest, almost a day from here,” The words came tumbling out. It was a relief to tell someone her story. “A woman, someone I thought was my mother used to come to see me every day. I didn’t think anything of it because I’d never been outside the machan. That was the only life I knew.  She used to bring food, massage my hair with oil, and wash it every seven days. My hair grew and grew. I used to ask her to take me with her, but she said it wasn’t safe for me.”

“Why didn’t you go out yourself?” Gita interrupted.

“I didn’t think anything of it because I never went outside. I thought my mother was protecting me from some danger. I remember her climbing up the machan with a ladder. But once my hair was long enough, I had to let my hair down from the window. She climbed up my hair to come to the room. There was no other way in or out.

Washing long hair started to tire her. She began to stay back in the machan whenever I had an oil bath. That’s when I heard her talk about people looking for a baby. When I asked her about it the following morning, she was so shifty, so uncomfortable. The she told me she was going to take me away from there to live in a beautiful house with lots of people to do things for me…

I knew something was wrong. What was she hiding from me? At first, I thought she needed help. I pretended to sleep early whenever I had an oil bath. Then, when she was asleep, I paid attention to what she said.

No, she didn’t need any help, nor was she my mother. I don’t know the whole story yet, just bits of information I heard over a while. I have a mother and father somewhere and it is something to do with a house with beautiful white paintings on the wall.”

“You mean, like a Mandana? Where is this house?” Gita asked.

“Mandana? What is that?”

“Mandana is a kind of art we draw on walls and floor.” Gita described. “Go one, tell me more about this house.”

“All I know is that the village has a large peepal tree in the centre, and the house is on one of the lanes near the tree.” Zulfika told her.

“How did you escape?” Gita looked at her friend.

“I started watching the woman closely, which way she came to the machan, and which direction she took when she went down. I noticed that she was always a little wet when she came in. I could see a river from the window. Then a few days back, the woman brought extra food, sweets and even flowers for my hair! “Here, put the jasmine strand on your hair. I will be away for a few days because I must see to the new house. When I come back, we’ll get ready to move.” Who knows where we were going to go! I decided that this is the best time to get away from there.”

“But you say you had long hair. What happened?”

“I cut it! What else could I use to climb down? I cut it all and braided it into a rope. See, I have some here,” Zulfika pulled out the thinner braid in her bag.

Gita’s eyes shone bright in the moonlight. She pulled her friend up.

“Come on, you can’t do this on your own. We’ll find a way to help you.”

“No, it’s not safe…” Gita didn’t let her friend finish. “Listen, it makes sense for me to join you. The woman will be looking for you, a girl with long hair who doesn’t know much about the world. She won’t be looking out for two girls. And” she dropped her voice, “I can teach you things about the world so that your ignorance doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb!”

A warm feeling enveloped Zulfika. For the first time in her life, she felt that she truly had someone on her side.

Zulfika, The Indian Rapunzel 1

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