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“Daadi, where is Rani?” 17 year old Mishti, in her worn-out lehenga choli and unkempt, but soft brown hair inquired after her friend.

The old woman, sat squatting on her heels next to a large pile of red chillies, spreading them evenly on the ground to be dried under the hot Ranjore sun. Without looking up, she grumbled “Rani is helping her mother cook lunch. I suggest you too learn some household work.”

Mishti, who had selective hearing when it came to Daadi, turned a deaf ear and yelled, ““Rani, come soon. Raaani,” and was pleased when Rani, a gentle soul with raven black eyes and a kind smile emerged out of her small hut.

“Don’t stay out too long,” was Daadi’s predictable command at which the girls smiled and left to be… kids again!

The two girls had been best friends since childhood. They went to balwadi together, pretend- played marrying off their ragged handmade dolls, fought with the boys for being treated unfairly, spent hours talking by the river with their feet dipped in the cold flowing water and were competitive when it came to a game of Five Stones. The game of pebbles was their favorite and they had a set of five stones which Mishti always carried in a small cloth pouch tied around her waist.

“What happened?” Mishti asked when she noticed Rani unusually quiet that day.

“Bapu has chosen a groom for me.” Rani broke the news unceremoniously.

Mishti looked surprised but didn’t prod further. They were raised to believe that whilst men were the bread earners, a girl’s sole purpose of life was to get married and raise a family.

“Amma says I don’t have to get married. It’s my choice and she will stand by me.” Rani shared the events that took place at home.

Mishti knew it wouldn’t matter. She knew Amma will buckle and that Rani’s decision will finally be her father’s choice.

“The boy is from Bambai” Rani concluded making the news graver.

It had taken a few days for Mishti to accept the fact that Rani will be leaving her soon, but over numerous games of the Five Stones, she had come to terms with it and even teased her friend about the impending marriage.

“You will soon be a City Bride, Queen of a Bambai Babu’s heart, but don’t you ever forget your best friend here!” Mishti would say, picking up four pebbles in one quick sweep while trying to catch the fifth one in the air.

Rani, brilliant at flipping all the five stones from her palms to the back of her hands in one swift movement would reply “I will be a married woman. I won’t have time to think of anyone else except for my man.”

The wedding was a modest affair and when the young bride said her goodbyes, Mishti was inconsolable leaving Rani teary eyed.

Bambai soon became Mumbai for the New Bride. Her husband, Manoj, was kind and a good man, but he wasn’t a Bambai Babu as all believed him to be. He was just another dreamer, another survivor in the city of lights… Manoj was just another daily wage earner at a construction site. The initial few days in their small hut were a shock, but Rani soon adjusted to it and it wasn’t long before she too became a bread earner to take care of her household.

With each passing day, working hard in the sweltering sun, Rani’s only connection to her past was those seldom letters from Mishti exchanging news – Mishti updating Rani about the uneventful tales of Ranjore and Rani sharing glimpses of her untruthful city life.

“I am thoroughly spoilt here. Lazing around the whole day, I wait eagerly for him to come home.”
“We go out every Sunday for a stroll by the sea and watch movies in the cinemas too.”
“He takes me to eat out often. The street food is delicious. The city life is good.”

Rani’s letters, however, always told one truth. “I miss you,” she would write in all honestly and an occasional patch of dried-up tear on the blue inland letter was witness to it; a truth which never missed Mishti’s eyes.

Rani would day dream of the cool river of Ranjore and her carefree days with Mishti. She would ache for a contact, a voice, a glimpse or anything from her parents, her village or her friend.

It was thus a welcome surprise, when one morning Manoj came over where Rani was working and handed her a package which had arrived in the post. Forgetting her work at hand, Rani sat down opening the parcel gingerly, which was heavier than the usual letters that came. Wondering what it might be, the raven black eyed girl tore the envelope to find a letter which said “Your City might have everything, but I bet you won’t find these in Bambai. Whenever you miss me, hold them close and I will be with you my dear friend.”

Rani looked further and choked on a sob. There lay her treasured memories, those five stones from her past which now lay in her palms.

“Hey you, why are you sitting idle? Get back on job” yelled a site officer on top of his voice.

With an apologetic “Yes sahib” Rani nodded her head. Throwing a glance around her, she stared at the irony of life. Surrounded by millions of construction pebbles waiting to be lifted and passed along to participate in the grand scale of things, Rani looked back at those black, uneven, five stones in her hand which looked more beautiful than anything she ever possessed.

Rani put the souvenir from her friend back in the pouch. She tied it around her waist, feeling closer to home at last. Picking up the ghamela lying next to her; the city bride swayed away to the memories of her beloved soul-sister, the only woman who could see past her hidden words, the only one who could understand her.

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