Thursday, April 29, 2010

Destiny's Catch..

       The sounds of Reverie wake the dogs up from their fitful sleep and make them bark in unison. Inside the Hut, Shauni’s mother applies turmeric to her hands and feet and face. Her relatives gather around her singing songs and beating out sounds from the Dholak. ‘Go away, you ungrateful daughter, the husband’s loins are now more precious to you’, they sing, giggling at naughty jokes made by the old toothless hag, past her expiry date. The mood is upbeat.
       Tea is passed around in the men’s group who sit outside smoking beedis and chewing paan. For once, today the beetle juice is spat in a spittoon placed in the midst. Festoons, gaily colored, hang from every nook and cranny. The strings of light run on the electricity stolen from the transformer 10 mts away, in the field. The men cheer and howl under the influence of the arrack from Butta’s liquor shanty. How many will die can be known only after two days. They make lewd jokes about intercourse, women’s anatomy and their manhood. Pubescent boys try to sneak into the group and hear the ribaldry, only to be spotted and shooed away. The eunuchs dance, swirling their fingers in their mouths in a crude imitation of oral sex, while their ghaghras twirl round and round and round.
       Shauni sits demurely like a Bride-to-be should, with downcast eyes and a shy smile. She is only fourteen, the perfect age for daughters to be yoked off in marriage to middle aged, paunchy men. Shauni is lucky though. Her groom, Dalmu is only twenty eight and unmarried and still virile.

       The firstborn of three sons and two daughters, he had waited until all his siblings were married off. It was a promise he had made to his dying father twelve years ago. Being of the fishermen caste, it was difficult for Dalmu to find proper matches for his sisters, but he finally succeeded in getting a family in the neighboring village and had married them off to two brothers. The Dowry given to the sisters was compensated by the dowries received from his brother’s wives. Now since his responsibilities were over and the mother was getting older, Dalmu agreed to finally get himself a wife. Shauni was beautiful, young and what was more, she was bringing with her a decent dowry. Her father had taken a loan from the money lender at a large interest rate for two years and bought a cycle for Dalmu. This was other than the customary items given by a bride, which included clothes, puja items, vessels etc His mother had already discussed this with Shauni’s family and only when satisfied with the list of items, agreed to the match.
       Tonight seeing his daughter being turned into a bride, Shauni’s father sighs contentedly. It feels as if a heavy burden has been lifted from his shoulders. Luckily he has two sons to go and no more daughters. He knows he is lucky enough to have escaped with only one daughter being born. Otherwise his life would have been spent just paying off their dowries. The blood mixed in his betel juice does not worry him tonight.
       Under the influence of the arrack, the world seems brighter and colorful.

       The wedding takes place the next day morning.
       Accompanied to the beat of dholaks, jhillaks and chham-chhams, the groom leads the procession on a bullock cart. This year’s famine has made the bullock’s rib poke out a little, but it walks chewing on the cud, with very little prodding, oblivious to the noise around it. A make-shift mandap has been erected out of a wooden platform and plastic sheets decorated with flowers. Shauni sits wearing her red wedding sari in the traditional Koli style and gold and imitation jewellery. The cheap gold shine of the jewellery, offset against the fierce red sari and her dark complexion is liked by the women and they murmur amongst themselves’ How beautiful the girl is’. Soon the bride is given away by the father, garlands exchanged and the customary feast ensues. The yard has been layered with cow dung, and spaces are allotted to the groom’s family. A mad dash to catch a place in the seating area’ causes panic among Shauni’s family and they try to placate everyone. Soon the revelers calm down and everyone starts gobbling up the chicken curry, rice, pickles and papads. Behind the hut, women cook more rice, more curry, fry more papads and dole them out in steel buckets to the waiting attendants serving food. Sweets are guarded strictly and given only to the groom and bride and the groom’s immediate family. Others who don’t get the sweets stare at them until even the last bit stuck to the moustache or beard or cheek of the eater is licked away.
       After the food is eaten, and after the cycle and other dowry items are presented to Dalmu’s mother, Shauni is seated on the bullock cart and taken to her husband’s village. In the hot fierce sun, the Nycil powder on her face mixes with the tears and trickles down in white streaks. Her mother weeps copiously while her father looks on with moist eyes. He waits there until the procession merges with the Horizon.

       At her husband’s house, her ‘co-sisters’ and sisters-in-law, at the door apply tikka to her forehead and break a coconut. They pour some alta into a plate and Shauni dips her hands into it and imprints her palm on the wall next to the front door. Her mother in law guides her hand to the space above the palm imprints of the Manhjli bahu and Chhoti bahu. ‘You are my Badi bahu, and above them’ she whispers into Shauni’s ears. She is then made to step into the 'alta' and enter the house, leaving red footsteps behind her. They take her to one of the five rooms in the mud house, and seat her on the embroidered bedspread which smell of mothballs. ‘This room will serve as your bridal chamber tonight’ her youngest sister-in-law tells her. The ‘Muh Dikhai’ ceremony lasts until late evening. Scores of women from the village have come to see her and the Dowry items are laid on the floor. ‘Wah, wah, she will bring luck to you. You can see it in her face. Saakshat Laksmi’ they say when they lift the veil, while her mother-in-law looks on proudly.
       Outside, the men tease Dalmu. His brothers and friends wheedle money out of him and buy liquor. Slowly the visitors start leaving. Not sure of what to do, Shauni stays put in the same room until Malati and Chutki bring her supper. Two rotis, rice, dal and curry. They tell her about the house members, about their habits and general daily schedule. After some time, Dalmu is pushed into the room by his friends and brothers. They cheer him on, while the sisters wink at Shauni and leave.
       The door is bolted from outside and Dalmu turns towards her. He takes off his shirt.

       It has been two months after the wedding. Shauni has synchronized her body and mind to that of her in-laws’. She wakes up at 5, sweeps, mops, washes, cooks. Until the men return home late evening for dinner. Petty squabbles have started, but on the whole her husband’s family is better than most in the village. Maybe the dowry appeased them. Shauni has discovered she is pregnant. Her mother-in-law has had her examined by the Hakim and though his proddings were quite unpleasant (she never understood why he had to slip his fingers inside her to find out if she was pregnant or not), she basks in the new found discovery. Her mother in law makes ‘kheer’ and announces the news to the household. Dalmu catches it just when he is about to leave the house for the day.
       In his excitement he bumps into the door, while a veiled Shauni giggles.
       Today, Dalmu is a little worried, notwithstanding the good news he has heard from his mother. One more addition to the family, means another mouth to feed. He has to venture deeper and farther into the sea for his catch. And then too there is no guarantee that he would be successful.
       ‘Let us split today, Dalmu advises his brothers. ‘But Bhai, we have only two boats!’ the younger brother blurts. He is a little scared of the sea and hence does not go out alone.
       ‘Allright Somu, how long will you be scared, You and Rovai, go in the bigger boat, I will go in the smaller.’
       There is no way; we can catch anything if we search in the same place. Let us meet here before dusk sets in.’ Dalmu gets into the smaller boat and pushes off to the west, while his brothers stay back to drink some tea.
       ‘Be careful, have heard the sea is a little rough that side. There are a lot of whirlpools too..’ The tea vendor shouts.
       ‘Will take care’ Dalmu replies with a wave and shrug.

       The sky is a bit cloudy. Dalmu scans the horizon for signs of rain or storm, and not seeing any, smiles satisfied to himself. His boat glides on the sea, like the pink foam riding the waves. Soon the sea shore disappears into the far distance, and all that he can see is the sea everywhere. Blue and more blue. Dotted Blue and Foamy Blue. Happy Blue and Menacing Blue. The afternoon sun plays hide and seek with the clouds. The breeze turns balmy. Dalmu takes off his shirt to pacify the sweat running like an army of mad horses down his back. At noon, he eats his simple lunch of rice and fish curry. By four he has managed to catch a sizeable number of fish. ‘I should come to this side everyday. Tomorrow all three of us will fish here’, he decides.
       Soon it is time to return. The sun starts packing up and tells the clouds to go away. They disperse reluctantly, making faces. Dalmu turns the boat towards what he assumes is the general direction where the land lies. The boat bobs on the sea like an abandoned cork cap. Like a puppet on a string. The small brass bell on a red ribbon that Dalmu has tied to the oar tinkles merrily. It is Shauni who had made it. ‘This charm will ensure you are never separated from me’ she had breathed into his ear’. For a while Dalmu loses himself in his bride’s thoughts. It is only after a long time, when even with the continuous rowing, Dalmu does not see any sign of a land, that he panics. He rows the boat furiously, coaxing it towards his assumed direction. The minutes pass slowly, Dalmu’s heart now sounds like a booming cannon.
       Then he sees it.
       The whirlpool.
       Like spider webbing, it sucks in all twigs, bogs, cloths, branches, abandoned slippers into its vortex. Dalmu has heard of it from the old Jhoran on one of their drinking nights. But has never seen one. Now he does and he is scared. His boat lurches violently. He tries to pull it back, rowing furiously.
       But it is too late.
       The boat is caught in the whirlpool.
       Dalmu jumps out, praying and screaming to the Gods in the skies. He thinks of his unborn son, his pretty young wife. His mother, father, sisters, brothers and his friends. He prays forgiveness for the sins he has done and tries to bribe the deities he worships. He tries to swim but is caught in the rapid turning hole. Images flashe in his mind. His mother calling out to him as a child. Sitting atop his father’s shoulder’s on the way back from a fair. The vivid yellow of his wedding dhoti. Shauni’s brown eyes. The minutes pass by slowly. Hours have dragged into days, days into months, months into years. For a thousand years, Dalmu’s weightless body turns and twirls with the whirlpool’s movement. The boat is not to the monster’s taste so it is flung out. But Dalmu’s body is, and it disappears into the black pit.
       There is no sign of anything, and the sea is as calm as ever.
       It is late evening when the sun is about to set that the brothers come looking for him. Their shouts go unanswered, though they can see the boat from a distance. It has left the whirlpool behind and is now nearer to the shore. The brothers do not see any fisherman on it and fear the worst. ‘No he must be asleep’ Rovai stammers n a false voice.
       They look around and then into each other’s eyes. They know it is fruitless to stand there and search.
       It is a part of their lives. A missing fisherman is a dead fisherman.
       Somu climbs into the abandoned boat and they start towards the shore, rowing with no expression on their faces.

       Shauni stares at the floor. She has not cried nor asked anything. Ever since the brothers came home she has sat there staring at the floor, unblinking. The women wail around her. Dalmu’s mother beats her chest and tears her hair. In their grief, no one notices their askew veils or saris or blouses revealing skin. Other women from the neighborhood also beat their chests and cry aloud for some time and then proceed to the kitchen to ready the food for the mourners. The men are outside.
       It is just like the wedding day, except now the men are talking about their near-death experiences or recounting somber tales of men who have died in the past. Even the children seem affected as they sit silently and stare at their weeping mothers or grim fathers. Shauni is now ‘officially’ to be made a widow. She hears nothing, sees nothing, except the pattern on the floor. The whole room is a blur. She only feels a throbbing pain in her head, which refuses to go away. The oldest of the women bangs Shauni’s hands against the wall and breaks her bangles. Red angry slashes of blood appear on her wrists. She flinches. The sindoor is wiped off. Vigorously so as not to leave any marks. Her veil is pulled off. The old hag takes the scissors and snips off Shauni’s long tresses. Snip Snip. Hair falls in clumps. Black clumps against brown baked mud. The old hag peers at Shauni’s scalp and spits on the blade. She then wipes it. Satisfied that it is clean, she proceeds to shave Shauni’s head. It is a nice shaped head. Looks better without the hair. Nice and smooth and shiny. Maybe not smooth. Nicks and cuts mar the surface and bear testimony to the old hag’s unsteady hands.
       Black clumps against a green sari, against a yellow blouse, against a white petticoat.
       Black clumps snake their way on a dark brown slender back.
       Now the black clumps lie against a white sari.
       The shaved head is hidden under a tightly tied pallu. Dalmu’s mother runs to her. All this time her grief had overtaken her anger. But now she spits out venom as she half-drags Shauni towards the door ‘He got married to you and you have eaten him up. You have killed my son. Get lost, you whore. What bad luck you brought to me, you shit-eater.’ The women pry her hands away from Shauni’s throat. Her slaps and beatings jolt Shauni out of shock. She rocks back and forth on her feet. Limp against the wall, while her mother in law rains down blows upon blows.
       She sits there feeling only a terrible yearning. That somehow she is responsible for things having gone wrong. For having caused Dalmu’s death. She suffocates under a black cloud of despair. She thinks of the life inside her. The tiny life that Dalmu so wanted to see grow. While the women are busy pacifying and consoling Dalmu’s mother, Shauni walks out into the darkness. The sky has shaken the night out of its cloak. It scatters and settles on the trees, walls, houses gathering up armies of shadows to march against the morning light. Her white clothes make her look like a ghost from afar. She smells the cloying scent of the sea.
       As if hypnotized, she walks, totters, stumbles towards it. She hears the waves flinging angry cuss words against the rocks. She hears them call out to her. She feels the wet sand and then the wet waters first on her feet and then her ankles until she is knee-deep in water. From afar she hears Dalmu call out to her.
       She turns.
       There he is, to her right, his boat sail marking a white triangle against the eternal blackness. ‘Come here, what are you standing there and staring at?’ He asks, just like he did on their wedding night. Shyly, she walks to him.
       But he seems farther and farther away. The water is now upto her waist, but Shauni feels nothing. ‘Wait,’ she calls out to him. But he is too far away to hear. She reaches the boat.
       The water is now inside her head and nose and lungs and mouth. It swishes around her petite body, hissing like a great serpent. Her sari comes undone. It makes a long tail of white in the black sea. ‘Dalmu, take my hand’ she whispers hoarsely just before she steps into the boat.

       It is old Jhoran who fishes out her body.
       Bloated, Black and Swollen grotesquely after four days, the sea has spat it out onto the shore.
       ‘Suicide it is’ the onlookers whisper. ‘No, Murder’ say some. ‘See how black her feet have become!’ points out one, while another cries ’See her skin is peeling off!’ The police are called. ‘Suicide’ they rule and go away. The gatherers disperse.
       As Dalmu’s brothers and Shauni’s father carry the body home, a small brass bell tied onto a red ribbon falls out into the sand unnoticed…

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Quack..

I was on my way to work when I realized the pavement was blocked. There was a tent that had sprung up on it. It was definitely not there the night before, when I was walking home. It looked interesting and curiously pretty. A dirty brown thing in the middle of the pavement that flapped in the breeze when the wind threatened to uproot its pegs. The entrance was another patchwork of myriad fabrics gathered in the course of the owner’s lifetime. A cloth banner hung across two trees like a hammock. It proclaimed the inhabitant had permanent cures for all kinds of diseases, illnesses, sicknesses that could or would plague the world ever. Just when I crossed the entrance, I saw the ‘Doctor’ walk around inside. He was dressed in bright colorful clothes, an orange dhoti, a yellow and red embroidered vest, a green overcoat, all embroidered, mirrored and sequined. His hair was matted and long and adorned with colorful beads. His hands jingled with equally strange amulets, bracelets of aluminum, iron, brass, copper, as were his ankles. If he was actually so knowledgeable, he wouldn’t be walking around carrying this tent on his head. How did he manage to live or eat or pay for anything he required? It can happen only in India – you can put up a tent anywhere and make it your home and stay as long as you want right under the Traffic police, the Regular police, the BBMP; everyone’s noses. As long as you give 20 bucks to the police patrol every night, you can breed, excrete, and dirty the place without anyone batting an eyelid. I wondered how long he would be there. The citizens are much wiser now and taking a more active part in social service. But still I assumed he would be there for some days at least until someone made an issue about it. To my surprise he was gone when I came back that day. What had happened, I wanted to know. Maybe some concerned citizen thought his tent was an eyesore n an inconvenience and got it removed. Or maybe he was a fool for having set up his Quack Practice in the midst of an educated, civilized bunch of folks. But I wonder where he went. I would have definitely liked to see him Practice.

Unanswered Prayers..

       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.