Mehar is not so obedient a fifteen-year-old that she won't try to uncover which of the three brothers is her husband. Already, the morning after the wedding, and despite nervous, trembling hands, she combines varying amounts of lemon, garlic and spice in their side plates of sliced onions, and then attempts to detect the particular odour on the man who visits later that same night, invisible to her in the dark. It proves inconclusive, the strongest smell by far her fear, so she tries again after overhearing one of the trio complaining about the calluses on his hands. Her concentration is fierce when her husband's palm next strokes her naked arm, but then, too, she isn't certain. Maybe all male hands feel so rough, so clumsily eager and dry.
It is 1929, summer is erupting, and the brothers do not address her in one another's presence, indeed they barely speak to her at all, and she, it goes without saying, is expected to remain dutiful, veiled and silent, like the other new brides. Spying from her window, she sees only the brothers' likeness: close in age, they share the same narrow build, with unconvincing shoulders and grave eyes; serious faces that carry no slack, features that follow the same rules. The three are evenly bearded, the hair trimmed short and tight, and all day they wear loose turbans cut from the same saffron wrap. Most hours the brothers will be out working the fields, playing, drinking, while she weaves and cooks and shovels and milks, until those evenings when Mai, their mother, says to her, raising a tea-glass to grim lips:
'Not the china room tonight.'
This is the third time Mehar must finish washing the pewter pots at the courtyard water pump and, rather than join the women, take herself to the windowless chamber at the back of the farm. On the bed, she holds her knees close, seeing no point in lying down straight away. Five days married. Five nights since she'd first lain waiting in the pitch black, shuddering from arms to toes, hoping he wouldn't come to her and praying that there might be blood. The day before the wedding, Mehar's mother had folded a tiny blade into her daughter's hand. Cut your thumb, to be sure. Mehar hadn't done that, hadn't needed to, and Mai had been outside afterwards, waiting for the sheets. Her husband had said nothing to Mehar on that occasion, and little more on the next. Will he say more today, she wonders?
The tallow stick on its stony ledge has blown down to its crater and in the obliterating dazzle of the darkness she imagines she is underwater, in some submerged world of sea-goats and monsters. From across the courtyard she hears the distant protesting rasps of a charpoy and the scuffle of leather slippers being toed on. Her stomach does a small anticipatory flip, and she lies down as the door opens and he moves to sit at her side. She dares a sidelong glance at what must surely be his naked back, though it is impossible to make even a distinction between his hair and his cotton wrap, which she can hear him loosening. When she senses him unknotting the langot at his waist she averts her gaze to the black pool of the ceiling and waits.
'Undress,' he says, not unkindly, but with the contingent kindness of a husband who knows he will be obeyed. She tries to trap his voice inside her head, to parse its deep grain, its surprising hoarseness. Was he the one who'd called for more daal, who'd had her hurrying out to them earlier that day? She gathers the hem of her tunic up around her hips and unties her drawstring. She feels a rush of air against her calves as he slides off her salwar in a single swift motion, and then he bears down like something come to swallow her whole, until she can't even see the darkness on either side of him and fears that she really is inside his chest. He is neither rough nor gentle. A little frenetic perhaps, because all three brothers want a child, a child that must be a boy. Mehar's hands remain at her side, unmoving and cupped up. He smells strongly of grass and sweat, and of fenugreek and taro, the evening meal, but beyond that she can detect soap, and is glad that he had thought to wash before coming to her tonight. He grips her upper arm with one hand - calluses? Can she feel calluses? - then a final thrust, a stoppered exhalation, and he climbs off her, one leg at a time. His back to her again, she senses him return his penis into the pouch of his langot.
'You're learning the life here?'
'Everyone is very kind.'
He gives a wry little snort and she flicks her eyes towards the sound - nothing, she can see nothing. 'It's never been a kind house before,' he says, and shunts his feet back into the slippers.
The vessel is round, copper-bottomed, with a loop of a handle and a spout like a cobra rearing back for the strike. It's for the tea, this much they've been told, but how it is for the tea is not clear to them.
'It doesn't even lie flat,' Harbans says, confounded, holding the thing at arm's length as if it might curse her. 'And no hinges. Barely air to spread a fart in this room as it is.'
'The leaves go inside,' says Gurleen. She takes the contraption from Harbans and speaks as if all this would be obvious to anyone with a little breeding.
'So you've used one of these before?' asks Mehar, and Gurleen makes a frivolous face that tries to suggest she might have, once upon a time.
'You'll need the gauze,' says Harbans. She tips open one of the drawers and squints through the day-dark of the room. 'Lordy. The nice one for the three princes, yes?'
'Not so loud,' says Gurleen.
'A gauze over every cup?' asks Mehar, sounding doubtful.
Sisters together, they figure that the tea must be made in the usual way, in the brass pot and on the fire, and then strained into the copper vessel before being poured into cups, and all this they do, efficiently, sliding around each other in a space so narrow that when Mehar stands with her arms apart, her fingertips brush the walls. They live in the china room, which sits at a slight remove from the house and is named for the old willow-pattern plates that lean on a high stone shelf, a set of six that arrived with Mai years ago as part of her wedding dowry. Far beneath the shelf, at waist level, runs a concrete slab that the women use for preparing food, and under this is a modest mud-oven. The end of the room widens enough for a pair of charpoys to be laid perpendicular to each other and across these two string beds all three women are made to sleep.
'What a waste of time,' says Harbans, sieving the tea into the kettle. 'More things for me to wash.'
'It's how the English drink,' says Gurleen. 'Mai told me.' She's smiling at the thing, admiring the way its full bright sheen makes a reddish blur of her reflection. She tilts her face in profile. 'It looks so nice.'
'Mai speaks to you about these things?' asks Mehar, exchanging a droll look with Harbans.
'She's very nice to me. I think I remind her of her younger self.'
'Oh, you do?' says Mehar.
'We're both tall. Slim . . .' A raised eyebrow towards Harbans. 'I imagine I'm married to the eldest.'
'Naturally,' says Mehar.
Gurleen was certainly those things, Mehar had to admit. Tall, slim - and beautiful. Though there was a tartness to her beauty, the tight dot of her lips, the hard diagonals of her cheekbones, that Mehar personally thought too much. The first time the three new brides had met and spoken, Mehar and Harbans had walked away readjusting their clothes, as if they'd just been browsed by Gurleen for signs of competition.
Harbans steps in. 'Go on then, mini-Mai, get this to them before big-Mai comes asking.'
The delight in Gurleen's face flees. 'Why me!'
'You said you know how,' Mehar reminds her, and she takes the kettle and presses it into Gurleen's hands, who resists until-
'Mehar!' calls Mai. 'Must we die of thirst?'
They freeze, and then Mehar mouths a scream and reaches for her veil.
The veil makes a red haze of everything, a sparkling opacity against which bodies move as dark shadows. It is pulled so far forward that it entirely conceals Mehar's face, and she must cast her eyes down to see anything at all. And what can she see? Her wrists, heavily bangled in red and white; the tea in her hands; and her painted feet, with the silver anklet bells announcing her journey over the swept ground of the courtyard. Her hands shake with the fear that she's about to make a fool of herself, and, therefore, of the family. A tight slap awaits. The table inches into her vision and she stops, lingers, listens, though it's hard to hear over the clamour of her heart. It's so hot. She's hungry. How long ago was the midday meal? With her tongue she smears away the sweat from her top lip. Their talk quiets at her approach, as if in some strange deference.
His voice, she is sure of it. The same easy gruffness, the same clear brass. She thinks it came from her right. Without moving her head, she tries to peer through the top of her veil, where the chenille is thinner. It is impossible.
'Waiting for angels to shit?' snaps Mai.
Through the snake-spout, that is what they'd decided. Mehar takes a step closer and hears her anklet bells tinkle again. With one hand she holds the veil slightly away from her face and her field of vision is suddenly enlarged. The square brown table and four small glass cups, plain cups, set in a row. Mai, or Mai's feet, in their milk-green salwar, tapping the ground impatiently. Beside her the three sons, visible from the waist down only. One has a foot tucked under his thigh. Another sits with legs crossed. And the third: knees thrown apart, fingers drumming the oak frame of the charpoy. She is certain those must be his fingers, rough-looking. Callused hands. Callused! She bends and pours the tea, starting with Mai and working to the right, feeling relief when no challenge comes. His cup she leaves till last and as the tea flows she dares to raise her veil a little further, her face flushing as she takes in his handsome wrists, the way his white tunic sits over the attractive bump of his stomach, his open-necked collar . . .
'You can go,' says Mai, shrewd-eyed Mai, and at once Mehar drops her veil against her lips, her shoulders, so quickly that some of the material snags on her long lashes, and she turns and leaves.
On the nights when there is no tap on the shoulder from Mai, no instruction for anyone to go and wait in the rear chamber, Mehar gets in with Harbans in the china room. Gurleen takes the single, but she has pulled her pillow up so her head is right beside theirs. Tonight she fidgets, turning like a cheetah bothered by a fly.
'Sleep,' Mehar says. 'She'll have us up before dawn.'
'She'll have me up before dawn,' Harbans says, giving an immense yawn.
'God has built you to milk, Harbans: bucket arms, buffalo back,' Mehar tells her in a sombre voice that is perfectly Mai.
Harbans laughs and effortfully turns over, butting Gurleen, who sits up, knees raised and rocking in the dark. The bed squeaks.
'Sleep,' Mehar says again. 'Stop dwelling on it.'
'I can't,' Gurleen says. Then: 'I don't know why I'm here.'
'I wouldn't go thinking that way,' Harbans warns, in the direction of the wall.
'My baba promised me a rich city family. He said I'd be a memsahib.'
'Instead, here you are,' Mehar says, 'squeezed two to a bed with a pair of dream-free girls who feel like they've gone up in the world. Is that what you're saying?'
'I didn't mean it like that.'
'But that's how it sounds. We have to help each other now.'
'You milk mine and I'll milk yours,' adds Harbans.
'Exactly,' says Mehar. 'You're not still brooding about the kettle, are you?'
The embarrassment makes Gurleen's eyes sting all over again.
They'd called for more tea and she had blocked Mehar at the door and announced that she'd do it. She could impress her husband too, whichever of the three he might be. She pulled her veil low and sashayed over and poured with real flourish, the tea arcing gracefully and each cup filled precisely, identically. Then one of the brothers spoke:
'Not for me. It can go back in.' A hand crept into her circle of vision, nudging the cup towards the middle of the table.
She stood there holding the kettle. Go back in? But how? This was not something she and her new sisters had discussed. She felt the walls of her throat dry out. In her mind's eye she could see them all staring at her, this woman who was disobeying a man of the family, embarrassing her husband, so she picked up the glass and tried to pour the tea back in via the spout. She was spilling it everywhere and half in tears when Mai said - barked, to Gurleen's ear - to just take the glass to the kitchen, where Mehar and Harbans were biting their laughter into closed fists.
'We shouldn't have laughed,' Mehar now admits. 'I'm sorry.'
'Why didn't I just lift the lid?'
'They'll think I'm stupid.'
'Let them think what they want.'
'I won't let them think me an imbecile.'
'How posh she talks!' says Harbans.
Gurleen sighs and lifts her face to the ceiling. Closes her eyes. 'I think I need some air.'
'Just lie back down,' says Mehar, beginning to tire of Gurleen's self-pity. 'Here. Hold my hand.'
Then, from Harbans: 'That's my foot.'
Laughter. It makes Mehar feel bold. She shifts, turns over, the rough weaves creaking. 'So does yours talk to you? Properly?'
'A little bit,' says Gurleen, cautiously. 'He swears a lot. Not at me. Just to himself. Does yours?'
'Do you know which one yours is?'
'Of course not.'
'You know, I might just ask Mai,' Mehar says, if only to provoke Gurleen, who near chokes and asks her if she's gone mad.
'Mine called me a big strong girl,' Harbans says. 'During. He slapped my behind and called me a big strong girl.'
All three chuckle, though real tears come to Harbans' eyes, which she knuckles away. Mehar reaches out to touch her shoulder.