By Dev Chaudhry
The air in the daalan was thick and heavy. The setting sun on the left side of the house was glowing bright red (as if resisting to set, especially today, and in the process getting hot and angry) and so was the fire in the chulha, the handmade earthen hearth, where Rajo was sitting. She had been sitting there for hours now. Hope sustains life, she had heard, and hopeful she was.
Her feet were clawed together. Her left hand clasped her knees in an embrace. Her right hand sometime stroked the embers in the chulha but most of the time, it aimlessly scratched the ground between her and the chulha with a pair of tongs. She had wrapped her kameez and chunni tightly around her knees and feet. Her chunni also covered her head and part of the forehead; it was hanging loosely enough (just above the eyes) so that it could be pulled down, in an emergency, to make a veil if any elder of the house happened to come without announcing his arrival (elders in this part of the world make a loud and a lingering sound of clearing of throats, as if they are suffering from a perennial cough) before entering the janana part of the house, where women stayed and worked most of the time of the day. This clearing-of-the-throat is their sign to the women in the household to be on the alert and to cover their faces with a veil (I have always suspected that they smoke so much hukkah just to gain that kind of hoarse cough-y voice). But there might be some elders who could forget this routine and that is the reason women keep the chunni little loose on their heads so as to pull it down on their faces just in time (while cursing him at the same time under their breath). The real, the asli woman in these parts of the world is the one who is an expert in such things; ready for eventualities like these!
Rajo looked pensive (and my gut feeling told me that there must be some reason behind this). She was, almost absentmindedly, scratching the place with a chimta between her clasped, held together toes and the chulha (slowly albeit in an untold, uninformed rhythm). Very often she raised her eyes askance towards the main gate across the daalan (as if looking straight in that direction might bring bad luck). The tava on the hearth was amber hot as if it was angry with her for not putting anything on it. But who knows? The tava might have some other explanation to offer, if asked. Maybe it was angry with itself (I love to think and conjure up things on the part of innate things because, as you know, all others have opinion of their own, and opinion about others but these things like tava, we never talk to; they may have their own story, their own version of the things), looking at her and thinking of its own inability to do something for her because it was clear to him that she looked lost, she looked worried. But how could he have known (he told himself as if giving an explanation to himself) because she had not uttered a word since she had lit the fire and sat there.
However, what was impossible to miss was that the fire was burning, and burning it was hot and bright – out and inside her (the latter is just my guess). Her husband – the handsome man, six feet tall, and as powerful as an ox – had gone out long time back and what seemed almost ages ago to her (though, it had been few hours only) to bring her son and bahu home. She knew he would bring them home. She had full faith in her man but it had been hours since he had gone. She was not feeling good about it. In fact, she had starting growing upset with him.
During the day, she had kept herself fully engrossed in making arrangements for her bahu’s welcome in her new home. Her son was coming home and he was coming with her bahu, for the first time to their home. And that thought had put a chakra in her feet; the whole day she had been on her feet, doing this, undoing that, cajoling someone to do this, reprimanding the other one for doing something else.
She had been very happy the whole day; her feet were moving fast and her tongue even faster, giving directions to all and sundry (anybody in the vicinity and in the hearing-range) to put this thing there and that thing here, little bit less there and little bit more here. A special day it was; her bahu was coming to her new home, for the first time.
She was humming a song all along; there was a little haughty (may be it was naughty; I often mix-up words and expressions, you know, unknowingly) smile in her eyes, in her body. She swayed to the tune of the song she was humming. Life, after all, was going to be beautiful.
It had been long since she saw her son – almost two years. With that thought, her heart ached; she almost felt like puking with claustrophobic suffocation (though she was sitting in the open and breathing freely). She was there in her home but she was not there; she was where her son was. The mind is a belugaam ghoda, a horse without a leash; it goes where it is not supposed to go, where it is not allowed to go. But goes it there, again and again. Like the tongue, which keeps going to the tooth that has something stuck in it.
Whispers floating in air in the village (she had caught the whiff of some of these) told her that her bahu and son had arrived in the village in the morning itself, at around eleven. Her son was a man of letters and wise beyond his age. Few days back, he had told her that he knew the future, the immediate one and the long term one, too. He told this to her few days back, when he had called her last (he had also told her that he was coming back to the village). He told her that he knew what would happen to him if he returned to the village. In her heart, she wanted her son to come back to the village, come back to her but she also wanted him to stay safe. And that is why, against her wish, she had asked him not to come and to stay put at the same place, where he was living for the past few years, away from the village. But she knew that he had decided to come back because before ending the call, he had said, ‘I know you want the best for me but enough is enough. I am tired of running around. I am tired of changing houses. I miss my home, I miss you, Ma.’ After a pause, he had continued, ‘I am tired of running, I want to take rest. If my own people don’t understand me, if my own people want to kill me, where will I go, how much will I run? But before all that, I want to see you.’ She felt a deep abyss opening inside, a full throttled, sharp howl emerged from her stomach. It has been so long since he went. She had grown so old, so feeble, in these last two years. ‘My Raju, my darling, my child,’ she had wailed, biting hard at her right arm to muffle her voice.
She gave a sharp jerk to her head. ‘Things will go well,’ she told herself. ‘He has gone there, he will straighten out everything, he has always done so, why he would not do so today.’ Saying that to herself, she felt comfortable, comfortable enough to loosen her dress a bit and take few long deep breaths. She felt better.
Thinking all those things, she again got busy in arranging the place. Her mind meandered to the time when she had first come to this house; how well it was prepared for her, how well it was decorated. She was sixteen at that time, innocent, innocuous. She had a leap in her heart, for the future, and for the handsome man (she had seen some of him but not to the fill of her heart). She was going to meet all of him in a few moments, she had consoled herself. She had had a shy look at him when she was putting a garland (made of her favorite genda flowers) around his neck. He had looked very manly and very handsome.
She buried her face in her palms as she felt shy and happy at the same time, thinking all this, all over again, after so many years. She had put everything of her – her body, her life, her future, her fate – her everything in his hands at that very moment. On his own part, he never gave her any chance or occasion to think otherwise about her decision. For her, he was the man to go to for anything, everything (at this very thought she felt a hollowness in her chest as if she was missing him, only if he could have been there with her, only if he could have held her arm…but then she only had asked him to go and bring his son and bahu home). She again jerked her head. She was a mess, pure mess, she said to herself (thinking something at this moment and other things the next moment). So why he would not do the same today; why she should doubt this fact or him today – this very thought made her have a sure sigh of relief (I guess with a shy smile, returning to thinking of that day when she had seen him for the first time). She started humming a song.
She wanted to prepare and decorate the house the same way like that day (although she did not remember the exact details but she knew everything from her memory as to what is to be done and where and to what extent), when she had come to this house, the day she got married. She wanted to welcome her bahu the same way as she was welcomed. She wanted her to feel the same way as she, herself, had felt. She wanted to welcome her bahu in a home that would be her own home – same warmth, same closeness, same affection (‘as I, myself, had felt’, she thought).
‘It has been long since he went. What is it that is taking him so long? It has turned almost dark, what’s taking him so long?’ she thought, ‘I have to cook, serve them the best meal that I can conjure up in such a short time, and there is still no sign of them.’ She would have berated her man to the fill of her heart, but she knew the occasion was different, the times were different, these times were not the best of the times; she was no fool (she was breathing the same air as others in the village, and she, too, heard the whispers floating in it). But this long? Her heart had started pounding harder against her feeble ribs. She was getting breathless again, as if her heart had started missing beats or her lungs were forgetting to breathe in enough fresh air.
Whispers floating in the thick, heavy and suspicious air (and the same air hung on those two-viciously-forked tongues of the branches of that tree, just next to the village chaupal) had told her that her bahu and her son were consigned to two separate rooms as soon as they arrived in the village (why not together, she had wondered as she remembered her first night with her husband in this very village). Then, on a cue from the sky above, she had imagined, (though separated by the wall), they were talking to each other, the talk of the happy times – the times that were about to start, any moment from then – the happy married life, in their own home.
Her man and she had been preparing for this day (well, not exactly for this day) for some time. As their son was completing his education, they knew that he would soon get married. And with that thought in their minds, they had added a chaubara, a room on the first floor of the house. ‘The new couple will need some privacy, their own space,’ they had thought. There was nothing fancy in that room, it was just a single room, little away, little secluded from other houses. They planned to add more things to the room in the coming years, as and when they would have enough money (as you know there is hardly any income and saving left in agriculture these days). But they did what they could. They had gone for a modern design; there was a bathroom, attached to the main room, and next to it, there was also a wash-basin.
For the occasion today, she had put some flower pots, on both sides of the door. She got made a garland of flowers and mango leaves, which she had hung above and around the door. Some geru colored pictures were also drawn on the walls near and around the door. The bed for the new couple (well, this was the first time they were going to be in this house, in their own home) was also very well done; it was the best bed in the house that was put there with best of the cushion, sheet, and covers. Anyone who could have seen it the way it was done would have seen love and care written all over it.
Inspecting the room one more time (she had done this umpteen times since morning), she got lost in dreams. Her bahu was in a room, next to her son. She looked ethereal. ‘So beautiful, so true, so honest, so pure,’ her heart came to her mouth. She extended her hand to give her aashirvaad, her blessings but her hand got stuck in her chunni. Her bahu was lying on paddy husk (so far away from her), listening to the song being played in the next room, on her son’s phone. She remained lost in that moment for long; the moment was so beautiful, almost nesargik (heavenly), two rooms, two lovers side by side (though separated by a wall!) but enjoined by the music entering their rooms through the windows, into the two souls. She also tried to imagine the song they might be listening to but the choice of the song unnerved her. Why were they listening to this song, ‘dekh lo aaj humko jee bhar ke’ (this was the song that was playing on All India Radio on her first night with her husband, and since then that had been her favourite song). But at this moment! She did not feel good about it. The song unnerved her. With a shudder, she came out of her reverie.
Why so long? She had started looking more often in the direction of the gate. Now, she was looking straight in the direction of the gate (it seemed she was no more scared of any bad omen) from where they would come (but even if they came from somewhere else, she would not mind, come they should; the children of the love-gods). She wandered on the thought of love-gods; all the gods are known for love. Then what was the problem? Why so much fuss over these two young souls falling in love, why has the whole world turned against them, why has the whole world become their adversary? Why was love so abhorred, why was it so threatening that people come to this stage in their hate, in their opposition? She could not think of anything reasonable, logical or for that matter, sensible.
Clearly, she was fighting with herself because she had started reasoning out the possible with the impossible. She was almost illiterate when she got married (she felt proud, in this moment also, that her man had completed ten years of education in school); her bahu is a graduate, her son is an engineer (may be little less than that because he had studied in a polytechnic). She muttered, ‘Times were changing. Girls and boys were studying, going out of their homes, to the cities. Meeting outside their homes and villages; they know more than we knew, they are more aware of their lives, they decide for themselves, they choose their partners themselves.’
Anyone who would have seen her at that time and read her mind could very well see that her thoughts were all over the place. But, these thoughts were no match for her feelings. She got up from near the hearth. Sitting for too long had affected her capability to stand straight and hold properly on to her posture. Though moving, her breath had started gaining control of her will. Breathless, she sat down again. She was now really angry with her husband. What was it that was taking him so long?
Then, she saw him enter the main gate. She almost sprung to her feet; her heart heavy and very light at the same time; there, there, they are here after all, she muttered to herself. Will she touch my feet or will I hug her first? She had started rearranging her chunni on her head and forehead. Will she recognize him in the first go? Will he look the same as two years ago? Her heart and her breathing suddenly got very heavy; she could not stand anymore. She sat down, with her hands on her eyes.
Slowly, she opened her eyes. It took her some time to realize that he had come alone because her moist eyes took some time to adjust to the dark all around (Damn you fire, I have been staring at you so long, she muttered, while adjusting her eyelids and her gaze).
Soon, she was able to see clearly that he had come alone; her bahu and son were not with him. ‘Where are they? Where is my son? Where is my bahu?’ She whispered amd the voice seemed to come from somewhere deep from a well, from the abyss which has been expanding since morning.
He just stood there with a forlorn, lost expression and no words coming out of his lips. She enquired, this time almost beseechingly, ‘Where are they?’ Almost lame, listless hands hanging on his sides, head bowed, he just stood there, without even uttering a word, without even a sign, without even looking at her.
She had not expected this from him. She caught him by his collar and shrieked, ‘Where are they?’ Shaken, he regained his senses. And, not knowing what to say, he removed his turban (bowed to reach the ground) and put it on her feet. She recoiled back and said, ‘What is this?’ He said, ‘I could not do anything. The panchayat has decided. I am putting my honour in your feet. Please forgive me, if you can.’ And he started crying a muffled cry, covering his face with his hands. But soon, the dams broke open; he was crying so uncontrollably that the hiccups took over his crying. It seemed he had started choking on his breath, tears and saliva were getting intermingled on his chin, and he slid on the ground, with hands still folded.
She stood there like a dead stone for a few moments, processing the news she had just received, and then she kicked the turban as hard as she could, and this time yelling at the top of her voice, ‘To hell with you and your honour. I am going to fetch my son and bahu for dinner; it is already very late.’
Dev Chaudhry has been associated with the development sector for last 15 or so years. He has worked with several national and international NGOs. A social scientist by training, he did his master’s programme in sociology at JNU, New Delhi and as a result loves to observe people and their behaviours. He did his Ph.D. in Community Health Sciences from University of Manitoba, Canada and his thesis was on ‘migration and health’. He loves to read all kinds of books but his first preference lies with poetry and fiction. He is currently based in Delhi.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Digital Archiving in the 21st Century’, edited by Md Intaj Ali, PhD Research Scholar, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India.