As it happened for all women of her village, Nishi’s chadar materialized when she was ten. It was velvet soft, the color of mist and midnight blue, and it wrapped around her thin little body like a second skin.
Very soon the words appeared, weaving themselves into the fabric, listing the actions that were now forbidden.
The morning after the chadar appeared, Nishi tried to go to school, but she’d barely taken a step from her home when the chadar tightened around her. Tighter and tighter it became, constricting her hands, her feet, and her neck till she couldn’t breathe.
“Don’t go against the chadar, I told you already,” Ma said as Nishi came back inside, gasping for air. The chadar loosened once she put down her school bag. “Ah, don’t try, it won’t come off,” she added, as Nishi clawed at the chadar.
“I want to go to school!” Nishi shouted, her voice full of tears and anger. Ma’s smile was sad.
“I’m sorry, Ni. We can only do what the chadar tells us. You’ll understand one day.”
Nishi didn’t understand. She didn’t understand why this chadar only came to the women, why she wasn’t allowed to go to school or climb trees or do any of the things she loved so much.
Instead, she had to accompany her mother when she went to fetch water from the lake at the southern borders of the village. It was the only place that had water, and it was always filled because of the black bird that sang near the water’s edge.
It had always been that way. No songs, no water. It was why their streams and rivers were dry, why the clouds never came to their village. The bird sang only near the lake.
When Nishi came to know this, she immediately had questions.
“Ma, why doesn’t the bird come to our village? Ma, why are our rivers dry? If we brought the bird there, the rivers would fill and we wouldn’t need to walk all the way to the lake, right?”
Around her, the chadar shifted and tightened with each question. Ma sighed and pressed an empty bucket into Nishi’s hands.
“Don’t ask questions. It’s always been this way. Now, fill.”
As per the chadar, Nishi knew she would be married off by fifteen. Already her mother had taught her how to cook, clean the house, feed the chickens and the goat. But all Nishi could think of were the books she had read back in her school, which Ma now had locked away, and of the bird’s song, wild and free and full of life.
The song stayed with her, the tunes and rhythms invading her dreams. The chadar’s power could not reach her thoughts, and in her mind she hummed the tune till she had perfected each note, each pause.
In the darkness of night, after Ma had fallen asleep, she hummed the tune aloud for the first time. The chadar slithered upward toward her mouth, and Nishi stopped humming. As the chadar loosened and fell back to her shoulders, she smiled. One act of defiance. She had to see. She needed to know how far things would stretch.
The next day, she was up early. The sky stretched in an endless blue. No clouds, only sun. It had been that way forever. Nishi recalled the stories. No songs, no water.
She wondered whether the men had ever tried to sing. Why would they, anyway? Women so readily brought the water to them.
She thought of the blisters on her feet and on those of all the other women from walking for miles every day. She balled her fists and hummed the song of the black bird. Louder and louder her voice rose and the chadar tightened around her lungs. This time, she didn’t stop. Overhead, for the first time in her life, she saw clouds form.
It was getting harder to breathe, but she didn’t care. She closed her eyes, ignoring the pressure on her windpipe, the press of velvet almost like a noose around her neck. People were listening to her music, gasping and pointing at her.
“Nishi, stop it!” Her mother’s voice cried out.
Nishi didn’t. Neither did the chadar.
Overhead, the clouds darkened.
Then another voice joined her. Nishi opened her eyes, startled for a second. Her mother was humming in spite of the fear in her eyes. Then another voice joined in. And another.
Darkness filled Nishi’s vision at the lack of air now. Overhead, the clouds rumbled.
The men stared as more women joined in; the chadars trying in vain to muffle the steadily rising voices. And then, a drop of rain fell.
As the clouds blackened the sky, the rain poured down in torrents. They filled the dry hollows of streams and rivers, and as they fell on the women, the chadars dissolved, each drop washing away the fabrics into nothingness.
Nishi stood in her own skin under a dark sky and turned her face upward, laughing as she sang with the others.
Tamoha Sengupta lives in India. She is a cyber security analyst by day and a speculative fiction writer at all other times. Her fiction has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Daily Science Fiction, The Colored Lens and elsewhere. She sometimes tweets @sengupta_tamoha.
Black Bird’s Song by Tamoha Sengupta is the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine July Flash Fiction Challenge, which was based on the featured image for July: Chadar aur Chardiwari II by Laila Shahzada