Translated from the Hindi by Ayushee Arora
Visiting the village was a regular feature during the summer vacations. This time when she came, she was all of six years old, and having recently graduated from the first grade. Village life was now beginning to pique her curiosity and generate her appreciation. Sitting on a low wooden cot, her grandmother was sifting through the vast mound of red chilies in front of her, and dexterously skewering them, so as to fill them with a blend of spices. She was just reaching out to touch the enticing, luscious red chilies, when her grandmother immediately chided her, “Don’t touch the chilies, child! If you accidentally touch your eyes or your nose, it will feel like your senses are on fire. And then you will be in agony, flitting around the whole house like a skittish wasp.”
Suddenly, her eyes fell on the charwoman who had just crossed the threshold, and was making her way over to clean the faeces- encrusted porch and bathing area.
Leaning against the cot, she excitedly jumped up and said, “Granny! Granny! Look, the charwoman is here!”
In a trice, Granny left the chili she was stuffing, and promptly slapped her across her face, severely reprimanding her, “When will you learn the ways of the world!? Is that how you speak to your elders!? Age-wise, Ratni is akin to your aunt. Call her charwoman auntie now onwards, understood?”
Her eyes immediately welled with tears. She felt that the lesson could easily have been taught without the slap, and in all fairness, at her age, how on earth was she expected to keep track of who meant what to her, relationships wise?
A week went by. She came across charwoman auntie again, while she was playing in the courtyard with children her own age.
Remembering the stinging slap from before, she smiled and quickly folded both her hands in greeting, as soon as she saw her. Lifting both her hands, the charwoman blessed her, in response to her salutation.
After finishing her work and subsequently bathing, charwoman auntie was settling down, expectantly holding the corner of her sari aloft. An interruption to the children’s playing came in the form of granny, who called her and said, “Come here quickly, child.”
As soon as she came closer, granny thrust a small basket containing some grain and stale bread into her tiny hands and commanded her, “Go and give this food to Ratni. Place it on the corner of the sari she is holding aloft.”
Obediently, she scuttled over to where the charwoman was sitting. The charwoman’s eyes lit up in pleasure on seeing the girl carrying the basket, and lifted the corner of her sari even more expectantly.
Displaying extreme caution, she tipped over the contents of the basket into the waiting lap of the charwoman. However, a few grains skittered over to the floor.
Setting the basket on the floor, she began to help the charwoman collect the scattered grains.
Suddenly, an ominous figure came looming large, and before she knew it, her grandmother had slapped her tightly across her face. Hurling anger- laced remonstrations, her grandmother snarled at her, “Ignorant, foolish girl! Did you touch Ratni?”
Completely disregarding and ignoring her hiccupping sobs, grandmother dragged her to the bathing area. There, she called one of the senior aunts of the house, and ordered her to get holy water to sanctify both of them, and also asked for two buckets of bathing water, so they could bathe and rid themselves of the contamination.
Even after she had bathed both herself and the child, the grandmother’s anger had still not abated. She walked off, with a warning ringing in her ears, “In future, if you have to give Ratni something, put it on a corner of her sari. Under no circumstances whatsoever are you to touch her.”
Meek and subdued, she ran off and hid in her aunt’s lap. Her innocent mind was plagued by a question. With her face nestled in her aunt’s bosom, she wondered why had her grandmother hit her?