Aai applied the vermilion and sandal paste to her forehead. She beat the coconut on the ground splitting it open. She drank the water and hit it again on the ground. She collected the scattered pieces and put them on the plate. The black stone Idol stared at her with its yellow crude eyes. Someone had placed it there years ago and the women had worshipped it since. They called it Kaali or Durga or Amba. It stood upright leaning against the long deserted anthill in a pool of flowers, old oil and vermillion mixed together by the countless worshippers who came to give their offerings to it. The goddess was supposed to cure infertility, TB, fever, madness, hysteria, impotency, jaundice, poverty, drought and everything else that plagued the village. Aai believed in its power. For every sorrow that befell her, she ran to the Idol and fasted and offered prayers to her, luring it with promises of being offered a coconut everyday or a new sari. It was another matter that she could not keep those promises as often as she made them.
Long ago when Aai came to the village as a newly wedded bride, she had been ‘introduced’ to the Idol and prayed to it every day since then. She called it ‘Mata’ unlike the other ladies. Strangely she found its presence soothing, and it seemed to give her the stability she never seemed to have in her life.
She was married off to Dinanath, a widower 15 years her senior and without any children. He was a nice man, if you ignored the daily drinking sessions at night. Dinanath worked as a miner, an occupation that finally killed him with TB, not helped at all by the beedis he smoked one after the other. It was 3 years since he died and Aai often felt lonely.
They did have a son 4-5 years after marriage. He had run away from home when he was 10 years old, following a beating by his father over stealing money from the house. Dinanath had tried in vain to search for him, even going to Mumbai many times to look for him. The city of Mumbai had beckoned, seduced and then devoured their only son. They never heard from him since. But when Dinanath died, the news somehow reached this son. He probably felt remorse or pity, either of the two, but it led him to send some money for the rites. He also started to write to Aai twice a year. Aai kept all those letters in her blue rusted trunk under the cot. She often wished he were with her to take care of her in her old age. Not that she was old in the true sense of the word, but her body did start to give out warnings every now and then. She made a little money by working as a servant in the Thakur’s house. Enough to scrape by. And yet not enough to fulfill her promises to the Idol.
Today as she sighed and turned towards the sea, taking in its salty warm humid smell, she realized it was that time of the year, when she should expect a letter from her son. The realization was accompanied by a small fluttering of her left eyelid, and a queasiness in the pit of her stomach. She gazed out at the sea, at the unruly waves that dashed in vain against the rocks. The sea kept spitting out all the dirt it had been force-fed by the cities along her shores, which, where Aai’s village stood, was strewn with dead fish scales, and stinking shells. The dogs ran free alongside the children, barking and trying to join in the melee. The morning sun glowered down, insisting on burning up the whole world, but then kept getting covered by the clouds. Angrily it peeped out of the white powder puffs.
Far below, Aai could see some early boats popping and bouncing on the waves, looking for fish. Fisherwomen came down one after the other and soon the place was a riot of voices, people, colors, smells as the returning fishermen emptied their huge baskets of the freshly caught fish. Aai sat there for a long time, in the shade of some palms. Usually she would just scamper back to her hut. But today for some strange reason, she was drawn to the Sea. She wanted to sit there forever. Until the night cascaded in gentle folds and enveloped her with a blanket of shining stars.
But of course she had to go. She couldn’t just sit here. The pots had to be scrubbed, the yard to be swept clean. She slowly got up to her feet and walked away in the general direction of her hut muttering to herself about the chores undone.
She heard the cycle bell. It was the postman. Expectantly she looked out of the doorway.
"Is there anything for me?" she asked hopefully.
"Yes, finally a letter and a money order, from your son in Bombay"…She took hurried steps to the yard, and applied her thumb to the receipt. Her hand trembled when she took the letter and the money from the postman.
"Give the letter, I will read it out to you, your sight is poor", the postman said, sympathy and pity for this lonely woman clouding his eyes.
After scanning it briefly, he handed back the letter to her, "Start your celebrations, Aai, your son will be coming to see you along with his wife…uh…it says here, next week Saturday. This letter was sent last week. Today is already Thursday Aai, they will be here day after tomorrow!!!!"
Aai looked at him, mouth open. "What when did he marry, and I did not even know?"
The postman laughed, "Be thankful that he has atleast bothered to come and see you while still alive, and more than that, you should worry about how you will manage to buy things for his arrival". He swung his leg over the cycle and went his way.
Aai stood there, gaping. Her mind most certainly would have wandered off, had not Nalini, her young neighbor espied her.
"What happened, Aai, what are you doing there in the middle of the yard?? What does the letter say?"
"Chintu is coming to see me next week. Along with his wife. Can you believe that? He has married and not a word to me at all. I wonder why he even bothers to acknowledge I am alive. I don’t know what she will be like. One of those Bombay girls, jhing bang, chhham chhham types. She will milk him dry. Oh, my poor Chintu.”.
“What nonsense” Nalini retorted, “Which son are you talking off? We saw him when he was, what, 8 years old? If he was so concerned about you, he would have taken you to Bombay in style. Be grateful, at least he acknowledges your presence enough to merit you worthy of meeting his wife. Forget all that and get ready to welcome him. Once he is here, then you can ask him to stay back. At least if the daughter in law stays with you, it will be some relief to you, I mean with the household work.”
Aai went back to her hut shaking her head.
The trunk had come as part of her dowry. Blue and rusted and chipped in places, yet sturdy. Inside she rummaged until she found the silk embroidered pouch. The crumpled notes fell out into her lap. Two thousand in all. It was something she had hoarded for her twilight years. A medical emergency, a calamity – anyone of those times, one must be able to tide over.
In the hot and humid night, Aai felt the sweat trickle down her back. ‘I must buy a fan for Chintu and his wife, what if they fall sick in this heat?’. She then made a mental list of things to buy. Since it was her daughter-in-law’s first entry into the house, she as the mother-in-law would have to perform some rites to welcome her into the household. What gift should she give? A gold bangle would be nice, one of those solid heavy ones that she had seen Thakurain wear, but of course how could she afford it? Only if she had money to throw around.
"Tomorrow I must go to the market” Aai said, smiling to herself.
Aai wore her only nice sari. The cream one with a yellow border. It was the only one which hadn’t faded all over. She went to the Idol and offered it another coconut, this time leaving it there for the other worshippers. She prayed fervently and far longer this time. Prayed for her son to come and stay with him for ever, be her support in her old age, light her funeral pyre. She promised for the umpteenth time, a new sari for the Black Goddess. She then, walked up to the dusty road that called itself a highway and waited for two hours before finally flagging down a rickety old bus. It emerged out of a cloud of dust, and could only be heard, not seen. People hung out of it precariously, their mouths and noses covered in dust. It was a wonder they managed to even stay alive until the end of the journey. Aai shoved and barged her way into the overflowing swarm of men and women inside the stuffed bus and survived the two hour ordeal to the nearest town.
The market was alive with all the characteristic sights, smells and sounds of a typical Indian market. Bullock carts were parked haywire, their owners shouting at the top of their voices, calling customers to buy from them. People milled about haggling with the hawkers. The fruits and vegetables on the handcarts threatened to burst open in the sweltering heat. The sun was so intense that Aai reluctantly had to buy a tender coconut, wincing as she paid three rupees to the hawker. The shops were lined up like soldiers at war. Dingy, dark, small but prettily decorated with festoons, colorful hand painted boards, mirrors et all.
The sari shops were the brightest. Oranges, Pinks, Yellows, Reds, Greens, Blues all over. Sequinned, beaded, ribboned, embroidered, printed sarees. Fluttering in front of the shops, seducing the women outside with their myriad of designs. Some shops even had crude mannequins fashioned out of cheap plastic, with the saris stuck onto their flat busts. She went into a couple of these dingy shops and looked through dozens of saris, bargaining, whining, pleading, demanding for reduced prices.
Finally she liked one that she thought would look nice on all complexions (what if her daughter in law was one of those dark skinned Madrasis?). It was a bottle green synthetic sari with green beads and sequins all over and even came with a blouse piece. The shopkeeper offered her a matching petticoat – all within three hundred rs. and another sari if she paid two hundred extra. Thus Aai was cajoled into buying another sari for herself, It was dark beige with a maroon border that made her look younger, or so the shopkeeper said. She pirouetted, pruned and draped the sari over herself umpteen times until finally the shopkeeper thrust it into a plastic cover and gave it to her with a beaming smile.
Aai had never worn something so costly in her entire life, but she was so filled with happiness that she did not mind in the least. She walked out haughtily, waving the plastic cover in everyone’s face, surveying the shops as if she had the money to buy all of them.
A jewellery and fancy novelty shopkeeper beckoned her, insisting she have a dekko at his shop before going ahead. It was filled with all kinds of trinkets. Aai admired the gold bangles she had desired all her life.
‘Try them on’, the shopkeeper lured. She liked the metallic sound as the bangles clinked against each other. But of course she couldn’t buy them. Sadly she kept them back on the glass counter. Instead she bought a pair of silver anklets, that were so thin you could hardly make out they were there at all, but atleast it was silver. It set her back by another five hundred rupees. She almost changed her mind and decided to leave, but what would the people say if she gave only a sari to her son’s wife?
She clucked her tongue and asked the shopkeeper to pack the anklets.
In the next 2 hours, Aai bought a secondhand fan, sweetmeats, rice, ghee, vegetables and a whole bunch of slightly ripe bananas. She could ask Nalini to give her a jackfruit and some tapioca. She also bought a mirror, altaa, turmeric, cooking oil, spices, two new plates and bowls and glasses, kokum seeds, Lifebuoy soap, toothpaste, sindoor, Cuticura talcum powder, bindis, glass bangles in green and red (for the daughter in law – without even knowing the size).
Back to the only bus-stop in the town for a half an hour wait, after which she caught the bus back home. She was completely exhausted but content. At dusk when she reached home, Nalini was waiting in her house to find out what Aai had bought from the market.
The two women went though the purchases and amidst their small talk, wondered what Chintu’s wife would look or behave like.
Saturday dawned crisp and clear. Aai did not know what time Chintu would be home. But she expected him by noon at least, based on the postman’s announcement that all trains left from Bombay in the night and reached here the third day morning.
Aai walked all the way to the tubewell in Bhola’s field and made 6 trips to ensure all the buckets, pots, unused pans were filled with water.
She arranged the mirror in the inner room of the hut next to the window, so that the light caught the beholder’s face.
She asked Nalini’s husband to use his carpentry skills and fashioned a small wooden rack from a felled tree in her backyard.
She made some kokum sherbet with the seeds bought in the market and then went to the butcher and bought some mutton. With Nalini’s help she made enough curry for 2 days. Ladling some into a tumbler, she gave it to Nalini, who was delighted beyond words as mutton was a delicacy relished very seldom in that part of the village. Aai spent some time making buttermilk, and taking out the pickled mangoes into a bottle.
She then took bath and wore her new sari. She even went so far as to powder her face and shoved a handful into each of her armpits under the blouse.
Then she sat on the threshold stringing some jasmine flowers and scanning the road for any signs of a bullock cart bearing her son.
The hours passed slowly. The flavored smell of the mutton curry, mixed with the fragrance of the jasmine, wrapped itself around her, pervaded the house, tickled the nostrils of passers-by.
"What is the celebration about, Aai?" they shouted from the road.
"My son is coming to see me. With his wife. After so many years." Aai answered excitedly.
She sat there squinting in the glare, her sight unfalteringly stuck to the road. At midday, there was still no sign of Chintu. Worry lines furrowed her forehead.
Now Aai stammered while answering the enquirers. She drank some of the Kokum sherbet, welcoming the cool trail it left as it reached her stomach. The train may have been delayed, she consoled herself. They will be here in sometime.
The birds stopped twittering as they returned to their nests to rest. Children skipped back from their school. The afternoon announced its arrival by making rumbling noises in Aai’s stomach. She ate her food quickly with some curry, worried that Chintu might come home and find his mother eating instead of welcoming him.
She went and sat again on the threshold, nodding off from time to time, until some noise jerked her awake, only to nod off again. She woke up to find Nalini shaking her
"What happened, Aai? Did they not come yet?"
Aai mumbled almost apologetically "Not yet, maybe they will arrive by night. These trains are always late".
Without replying, Nalini went to her house and returned with some tea. "Here drink this and let us sit out".
The postman made his rounds "Today is Saturday, Aai. Has your son arrived?" he asked.’
"No, not yet, when he comes I will send you a telegram" Aai snapped.
Taken aback at her viciousness, the postman mumbled something and went his way.
For a long time both women sat outside, not talking to each other, the understanding between them flowing in undercurrents.
Day turned to Dusk.
The sun spread its fiery red glow over the world, bidding goodbye before it was gobbled up by the Darkness.
The two women sat as if etched in stone.
The mutton curry gave up on its seduction techniques.
The jasmine flowers wilted.
Nalini got up "I have to leave, Aai. Laadu’s father will be home anytime."
Aai rose and went in, nodding her head.
Unsure, Nalini waited, contemplating if she should go in or just go home.
"Aai, do you want me to stay?" she called.
Just then Aai came out with a bundle under her arms and a steel bucket with the mutton curry.
"Here take this, I don’t need it anymore", she said thrusting it into Nalini’s hands.
"Do not open in front of me, and if you do not want it, throw it all away.’’
"But, but Aai’ Nalini started to object.
"Please…". Aai looked at her with eyes that were watering up.
Nalini knew better than to say anything at that moment.
The undercurrent swirled and grew strong, made its presence a constricting, suffocating haze inside and around the women.
Aai patted Nalini on the shoulder, turned around, and went back to her hut, shutting the door to the World.
At night while Nalini went home and opened the bundle to find sweetmeats, ghee, a whole bunch of slightly ripe bananas, the jackfruit and tapioca she had given to Aai, a mirror, altaa, turmeric, two new plates and bowls and glasses, Lifebuoy soap, toothpaste, sindoor, Cuticura talcum powder, bindis, glass bangles in green and red; Aai counted out the change left from the two thousand rupees she had taken out that morning, and closed the lid of the trunk with a sigh.