• Ujala Bhatti

The Woman from the desert

Surmi was walking down the narrow mud road to her house. Ujagar had told her to go back

home. He wanted to stay till late at the farm. His cousin had come from Brampton. They wanted to have drinks and party with some other young men of the village. Nirmal was also a farmer but he had migrated to Canada five years ago like many other youths from Punjab. Now, he had come to visit his family for a few days.


“Life in Canada is hard but nevertheless much better than here”, he had said.

But don’t you miss your own land, your family? Surmi had managed to ask.

‘Well, yes, I do sometimes. But for better opportunities you have to take decisions.” Nirmal

had replied.

“Hmmm…yes…”, Surmi nodded.


Surmi liked Nirmal. In the beginning, she liked Ujagar too. She loved his village, his farm and

his house. The occasional visits to the market of the nearby town pleased her so much. Those days,she thought she was living a dream with Ujagar. He loved her madly. But then, everything started changing as if somebody had cast an evil eye on them. It’s been three years now that she had come to Ujagar. Their love story was strange in its own ways.

As a child, Surmi had heard of a distant land where flowed mighty rivers filled with silvery

water and where the soil yielded golden wheat and copperish corn and long grains of white

fragrant rice and where the milk was as abundant as water. Punjab was a land of dreams for

Surmi and she was a dreamer. But as she grew into youth, she outgrew her dreams too. She

met Surjan. Surjan fell in love with the slim tall girl with deep set penetrating hazel eyes. Surjan would say“Who can resist you, Surmi. You are beautiful as an illusion.”


Surmi and Surjan both belonged to an ancient moving, dancing and singing tribe of Bikaner.

Women of their community often eloped with their lovers. Surmi had also made her choice.

Surjan was a strong, sturdy and well-built man, bronzed with the constant benediction of sun

god in the deserts. He could work hard but now people of their community were settling down.


The employment opportunities were few and poverty was everywhere. The benefit of the

government schemes hardly ever reached them. The traditional way of life was fast vanishing

away and they needed money and resources to adjust to the new patterns of settled life. They were all feeling dejected in this new world. Theirs was a barren land and Surjan had no work to do. But nevertheless, he loved her and he asked her to marry him. She agreed. Life was calm and predictable with Surjan until Ujagar came.


Ujagar had come to their village to attend a wedding. And there was an instant connection

between Surmi and him. Ujagar was bewitched by this ethereal nymph from the desert sky.

One night when everybody was asleep, Ujagar sneaked in her hut and told her to pack her few clothes. In next half an hour, she found herself following Ujagar at the platform of the Lalgarh Railway station. From there, they took the first train to Punjab and now for the last three years, they were together at Punjab living at Ujagar’s village. They had a one-year-old son. The baby had Surmi’s eyes and Ujagar‘s chin.


But life was now far from perfect in Punjab. Ujagar was a failed farmer. He wanted to leave

Punjab and go to Canada.

“Farming was not a profitable occupation anymore,” he would say. “The water level was falling low. The lands were drying up fast. Rains were more troublesome. They caused water logging.”


Surmi asked him to grow maize but Ujagar did not listen to her. When she argued he would

beat her and called her ‘the wandering woman’ from the desert. The tensions between them

mounted. At times, Surmi felt that Ujagar despised her. And at times, she felt she despised him too. She felt lost.


She had reached home. She brought the bucket with milk out and after keeping some for their own use poured the rest in the large can of the dairy man. Later, she mixed the fodder for the three cows in the courtyard. Then, she told the old woman who assisted her in house work to bring her a headache pill from the nearby shop. Thereafter, she came in the front room in the courtyard and took the baby in her arms. She fed him under her dupatta and then rocked him to sleep. It was already dusk setting in now. Ujagar would not come till late night. She knew it.


She went inside the back room of the house where they had stacked old black iron trunks. She opened the small trunk stacked on the larger two and took out a paper note. The note was given to her by an uncle of hers a week ago when he had come to see her. It was from Surjan. He had written “The sands of Bikaner are no longer the same after you. I wait for you every night. But you are like that unlikely shower of rain which I know would probably never fall on me. But then, I am the man of deserts. I believe in mirages.”


She read it again and again. And then she got up. She collected the few clothes she had carried the day she had left Bikaner. She came out into the bed room where the baby was sleeping. She had one last look at him and then wiped off the warm tear which fell on her cold cheek. The cold evening air blew across her face and she hurriedly walked out of the door through the brown twilight towards the railway station.

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