Translated from the Hindi by Rituparna Mukherjee
My grandmother doted on me.
I crossed the room and the courtyard, and hung from her shoulders, “Daadi, I am bored, shall I go out and play?”
Daadi took off her slight, shiny ring from her fingers and threw it into the broad drain that collected rainwater from the terrace during monsoons and from which the water fell into the main drain in the street with a steady gurgle. She told me, “Let ‘s see if you can get my ring back.”
I jumped my way down the stairs. I saw the ring gather momentum and speed ahead in the current of the main drain in the gully. I kept running alongside the waters of the main drain. It collected the waters of seven alleys nearby and finding the ring within its waters was no laughing matter. When I huffed and puffed and reached the end of the street, I found that the ring was lost in the depths of the gutter.
I trudged back with a slowness that had replaced my swiftness a while back. On reaching the terrace, I let out a wail, “Daadi…”
Daadi hobbled in my direction on one leg and said, “Don’t you dare weep now.” Then, she lifted me up on her lap and said, “Your grandfather will come today, I will give him my measurements again.”
I became happy. I was merely five years old and I didn’t realize how difficult it must have been for Baba, my grandfather, to get it made the first time, so much so that he mentioned the price of the ring each time they budgeted and rationed the price of things for the length of a year. Because of this, Daadi threw the ring into the burning stove one day, “There you have it, does that douse the fire in your chest?” She was about to throw her bangles, bracelet, and lacchha into the fire as well. But her mother came and stopped her in time.
Daadi used to get irritated with Ma for this reason. Whenever she used to mediate in such family arguments, Daadi used to fly into a rage. She used to speak offensively in her anger, calling my mother a prostitute and an illegitimate child and my grandfather a male hooker, to which Baba would get up from his seat and kick Daadi on his way out of the room.
There used to be utter silence in the house following these altercations. Daadi neither cried nor screamed, she would sit immediately in the seat left empty by Baba. Her face would curiously harden at that time. She would flex her right arm repeatedly, then would rise on her one good leg and standing in front of Ma’s room would announce, “Today no one will dare light the stove, I absolutely forbid you to step into the kitchen Bahu”.
Ma had also perhaps sworn to irritate Daadi. No sooner than Daadi would make such an announcement, she would take the potatoes from the shelf and start chopping them. Daadi would hurl a fresh set of expletives in Ma’s direction, snatch me and take me to the puja room. I would see her limp across the house and be amused. I knew one thing for sure about Daadi’s anger: if she would light an incense in the puja room, her anger was on its way out.
I would ask her softly, “Daadi will you have a paan?” After which Daadi would again be friendly with all the members of the house.
Daadi’s paan would be kept in bowls of water in the kitchen. Chihu would deliver the paan leaves early in the morning and I would snip them into long strips with a scissor. Daadi used to say that no one in the house would prepare her a paan before me.
I would take a strip of the betel leaf from the bowl and the paandaan from a recess in the kitchen and using the index finger of my right hand, I would add lime, gutkha, small pieces of betel nut, and five leaves of yellow tobacco. Sometimes, while taking this paan concoction to Daadi, a few of the ingredients would slip out. Daadi would immediately locate the issue, “Today my dear, you have been forgetful in making the paan.”
I would ask, “Daadi, is it? Lime? Gutkha?”
And I would run to the kitchen to fetch her more betel leaves.
Sometimes when Daadi would enter the bathroom to take a shower, time would pass very slowly. I would peep from the drain leading out of the washroom and start a conversation—
“Daadi, how long will you take?”
“I am just scrubbing my feet.”
“And what are you doing now?” I would ask without a break.
And she would answer, which I would follow up with another question, which she would answer again. A new question would then crop up. When soapy water escaped the drain, I would beat the tiles and cry happily, “Aha! Daadi you have finally finished bathing!”
If Ma was in the courtyard somewhere, she would grit her teeth and say, “Just you come to me at night, I’ll teach you a lesson.”
I would be scared to sleep with Daadi at night. Before she went to bed, Daadi would press Baba’s legs. Sometimes, when I would wake up in the middle of the night to use the toilet, I would spot Daadi still pressing my grandfather’s feet. I would say, “Daadi, please sleep.”
Daadi would sigh dramatically and say, “I will finally rest on the logs, my feet will kill me one of these days.”
And Baba, who suffered from insomnia for a long time, would shout, “You are always insulting us, God has taken one of your legs, I will break the other one, do you understand?”
I would find myself very lonely in Daadi and Baba’s fights. Daadi would answer him energetically, Baba would get up, bully her, assert his authority in one or two slaps, and would sleep, his face turned away from her.
This is why I slept with Ma.
Ma would scratch and pull at my throat at night and groan, “Aren’t you the favorite of your Daadi, you won’t study, you will run around the entire day like her servant, doing her bidding. What does she have, pray? Her mother was an ugly pauper. She looks like a beggar; you will be one as well.”
During the day, if I was angry with Ma for any reason, I would complain about Ma’s behavior toward Daadi. Daadi would respond immediately, “Yes, of course, I am a pauper’s daughter, but you are no collector’s daughter yourself. Your father is the same miser who passed away clutching his weights. Not even twenty people gathered for his funeral.”
Ma would look at me and fume. I would not leave Daadi’s side on such days. Ma would hit me that night. In order to save myself, I would start wailing loudly. Daadi would shout from her room, “Munni, oh my Munni, Bahu, don’t you dare touch my Laturbaba.”
I had really short hair. Daadi used to braid my hair tightly with ribbons, thrice daily but stray hair would escape from all directions. The rubber bands would be in place just in name. This is why Daadi used to call me Laturbaba. I had around a dozen names. Daadi would say, “Doctor Munnalal, will you please warm up my chhunchhuna for me, beta?”
I used to go to the kitchen and lift the container which would always be stained yellow with ghee and turmeric. Then Daadi would pour into the container a spoonful of ghee, turmeric, and ginger made into a paste, and would put it on heat. It would make a hissing sound, which I would like. When the yellow of the concoction would turn orange, I would scream, “Daadi, the chhunchhuna is ready.”
Daadi would hobble away from the toilet to her room with my help. I would sit in front of her, knees tucked in. Daadi would take off the parcel of bandages tied to the paws of her thin dry gourd-like legs and look at it. Her injured feet had small paws, like my palms, and the small fingers stuck together, didn’t have nails on them. Daadi would clutch her legs with both her hands and say—
“Hey Ram, it hurts a lot while I walk.”
I would ask, “Daadi, when will your legs get better?”
Daadi would apply a paste of turmeric and ginger with a ball of cotton, “When my Laturbaba would become Doctor Munnalal.”
And I would resolve in my head to become a better doctor than Doctor Munnalal who sat at the corner of the street. I would, first of all, treat my Daadi’s legs, then my hair, then Banu’s doll, and after that… to my understanding, these tasks were accomplished by doctors.
In order to evade her leg pain, Daadi would ask me, “Munni would you like to listen to a story?”
“Which one? Daadi, tell me the one with the clever crow in it.” Daadi would start with her story-telling.
In the month of Saavan, there would be a swing in the shed outside our house. All of us girls, young or old, would push and swing each other in turns and would sing—
When Shivshankar goes to Kailash, the rain drops fall.
Gauriji plants green henna plants, and Shivji plants bhang, the rain drops fall.
Sometimes Daadi would swing me and sing her favorite song—
The Papiha sings in the garden, I know someone is here
My babboo-beta is here
He has brought me hundreds of things,
A shawl for his father, a dhoti for mother,
Bangles for dear Munni
Forgot to get his sister clothes, who called him hundreds of names,
The papiha sings in the garden…
The song would be customized as per the needs of its inmates. Babboo beta would get everyone toys, shawls, suits, slippers, and whatnot—he would bring everyone everything, just forget to get things for Aunt.
Ma would work through the day and jabber, even at night while going to bed. I would ask, “What do you keep murmuring the whole day, Ma? I can’t even hear properly.”
With clenched teeth, Ma would reply, “What is it to you? Keep shooing off vultures and crows for her the entire day.” My father, Babu, was studying in Agra.
When I grew a little older, I saw how my mother would fight with him, late into the night, when he came home from Agra, “Why did you have to spoil my family’s soil by marrying me into this family and bringing me here? Either you take me away from here or kill me here with your hands. I can’t spend my life looking after your old parents. Throughout the day, it seems as if two frogs are sitting on that ottoman.”
Babu used to get angry. He didn’t like offensive language; he would pull his bed away to a corner in anger.
Daadi would be so happy on Babu’s arrival that it would seem she was completely cured, her legs didn’t seem to pain, nor did her eyes water. She would cook with her own hands that day and would feed my father, sitting in front of him. I would think if Babu could come more regularly, things would be better.
Once, Babu got a tin comb from Agra. Daadi always opened his suitcase when he returned. She took out the comb and said, “Did you get this for me?”
Scratching his head, Babu said, “Ma, I got this one for me. My hair gets messy because of the wind on my way here.” Daadi kept it back silently.
After Babu returned to Agra, I saw Ma using that comb to brush her hair. I immediately went and reported that to Daadi. Daadi came away from the ottoman and said, “Are you showing off that comb, taking it from your husband? Don’t show your pettiness here. I keep thinking about why my son’s heart has become miserly when it comes to his mother.”
Daadi was furious throughout the day. She used to go and grumble wherever Ma stood—
“I wrote Barka a letter.”
“Wouldn’t I have given you the comb if you would have asked me?”
“Will you turn the tea leaves into a medicinal drink every day?”
Ma said nothing to these taunts. She finished brushing her hair, tied it up, and with a smile of victory, kept the comb in the recess in the wall.
In the evening, Daadi told me, “Munni, go and get the comb.”
The two of us were sitting on the terrace at that time. I went down and fetched the comb from the recess where it was kept. Daadi quickly threw the comb into the drain that ran from our terrace and joined the main drain in the street. I immediately asked with joy, “Daadi, do I go and bring it back?”
Daadi stared at me sternly, “Don’t you dare. I’ll break your legs.”
Daadi didn’t get along with the two people in the house. There were just the four of us in the house. I would strut around the house because I was loved by her. When she was done with Ma, Daadi would deal with Baba. There was a room that shared a wall with the wall of the terrace. That room was used as a shop. I was always curious about the shop in my mind. Baba used to keep all the things in that shop. Daadi would send me to the shop sometimes to fetch turmeric, at other times lentils. Would first glance from a hole in the wall, it would seem like a bioscope. If I would detect the scurry of rats behind the sacks, my day would be made. Thereafter, I would go to the entrance of the store and request Baba for the products. Even if he would be free, Baba would say no to me at least once, “Run along now, don’t spoil my shopkeeping early in the morning.” Still, I wouldn’t budge. I would stand my ground and sit there. Baba would throw small parcels at me then to get rid of me.
Daadi didn’t like all this. Baba would give a day’s ration for the house after a lot of disputes. The next day there would be the same tug of war. She would ask him often to measure one ser of lentils and five ser rice properly and keep it aside, but Baba would consider that an extravagance. He would say, “If you see it much, you would consume much.” Once he even took a bottle of black pepper from the kitchen, saying it would sell for eight rupees.
Sometimes we would visit Vishramghat. The sight of the tortoises lazing around would both scare and thrill me. Daadi would shoo them off and bathe for a long time. There, she would meet a few of her friends. While they would have a change of clothes and tell their beads, they would exchange stories about the world. During one of these talks, Mansa told Daadi about a brilliant doctor near Dampier Park. He had apparently cured the injured legs of the lawyer’s wife so well that the bedridden woman was now able to walk confidently and swiftly. This news made Daadi very happy—“Mother Yamuna has listened to me today; I will visit the doctor today itself.”
Daadi walked as fast as it was possible for her and as she reached home. She didn’t laze around the slightest and immediately went to Baba at the store, “Listen, there’s a famous doctor at Dampier Park, can you take me to him?”
Baba didn’t like the matter, “How much will he charge?”
Daadi was fuming with anger, “Why don’t you break my other leg? If the bamboo is broken, of what use will the flute be?”
Baba said, “If he’s a good doctor, he would charge steeply as well, what is the use? You aren’t going to get married again. One should be careful about treating disease and debt, Babboo’s mother. The doctor’s prodding might make it worse.”
Daadi moved away from the shop. I told her in the afternoon, “Let’s go to the doctor quietly, Daadi.”
Daadi didn’t say anything. She just hugged me very tightly to her chest. After that day, she stopped applying the homemade herbal concoction to her feet as well.
I don’t know why but if Daadi would have any blisters or cuts, they would not get cured fast. It would spread slowly and then putrefy. Daadi would apply neem paste made from the neem leaves in the courtyard, but it would still take considerable time to heal. But she had stopped even these home remedies.
Ma would never sit beside Daadi. She would be busy at work and when she would not be working, she would lay in her room with her hands on her eyes. I would go and ask, “Ma, what’s the matter? Are you tired?”
She would not say anything.
I would say, “Where is it paining? Tell me, I will press it.”
She would shake off my hand and say, “Go. Run along to her.”
One day, Babu returned from Agra. His box had a few laddoos in them that had gone dry but was very tasty. Babu gave each one of us a laddoo, “These were distributed in our college on Independence Day to celebrate our freedom.”
Daadi seemed surprised, “What have we got?”
“Freedom, freedom, we are not slaves anymore, we can rule ourselves now. Gandhi Baba has got us our swaraj.”
“What will happen now?”
“What do you mean what will happen? It is such big news but you don’t comprehend the importance of it. Everyone is free now.”
I started clapping without understanding anything, “Aha-Aha, we are free now, Aha!”
Daadi mumbled amazed, “Everyone has freedom?”
Daadi let out a deep sigh, “I didn’t meet Gandhi Baba, otherwise I would have told him to get me a dupatta, what do I do with freedom? It’s not something one can wear or wrap around oneself.”
Babu became livid, “It is so difficult to make you understand anything, Amma.”
Daadi ate the tiniest bit of her laddoo and gave away the rest to me. Ma kept her uneaten laddoo in a container in the kitchen, where as soon as I spotted it, I gulped it down like a hawk.
Babu just spent all his time during the visit studying in the house. He had brought a book for me and taught me from it early in the morning. When I used to grasp things quickly, he would look at Ma and say, “Munni doesn’t lack in intelligence, she just doesn’t sit still, that’s the problem.”
Baba would be unaware of the hustle and bustle inside the house and would carry on his gregarious talks with his customers from his seat in the shop. One day, on a suggestion, he spoke to Babu, “Babboo when you finish your studies, come and take over the shop. I am really tired.” Babu was stunned into silence.
Baba said, “This is your last year, isn’t it?”
“Alright then, this time learn all the accounts of the store. This Diwali, you worship the account book, weights, and scales, when you come.”
“I am not pursuing an M.A degree to sit at the shop, Bauji, I am looking for a job really hard, I ought to get one by the time I pass.”
Baba became incensed, “What do you mean you won’t sit at the store? Have I enabled you to study so far that you idle away in a chair somewhere? I have given your fees throughout my life. I have sacrificed so much for your studies so that I can declare proudly—look at him, my son, he has studied sixteen classes.”
Babuji mumbled in a quiet voice, “But I haven’t studied so far to measure sacks.”
“Don’t expect me to pay your fees henceforth, whether you choose to listen from this ear or that. I expect you to return whatever fees I have paid so far if you really are your mother’s son.”
Daadi interjected, “What is his age? If he works now, he will soon come back to his house.”
“You stay quiet. What do you know? If he chooses to live separately tomorrow, he will keep his money to himself, won’t he?”
Daadi had thought so far ahead. She did want to have her son in front of her eyes, but at that very moment she wanted everyone to be happy and get along with each other because Babu had come home, she didn’t want anyone to fight. That is why, she kept telling Ma as well, “Be happy and content when you work, Babu doesn’t like a glum face one bit.”
Ma would retort back, “The lord has made me this way and this is the way I’m going to remain. Who will loan me a different face?”
Babu went around the house, buzzing, “This is a strange matter. Despite studying so hard, I’ll have to break my head on the scales. What is the point of studying if I don’t have the freedom to choose my own path?”
Daadi let out a deep sigh on hearing him, “You still have something, look at me, I have a huge boil on my back but your father doesn’t do anything about it. Babboo, when you get a job, please take me to a doctor first.”
Babu said, “You should stay with me then, Amma.”
The boil on her back needed to be slashed for treatment. The compounder was asking seven rupees for this. Whenever the puss of the boil would increase her pain, Daadi would go to the compounder and plead with him for treatment, crying in pain. But the compounder would not be moved. Daadi would say in sadness, “This is nice freedom. This basic cut also requires money now. Earlier, this same compounder would slash my boils in exchange for one ser jaggery.”
Baba said in an explanatory tone, “Listen, I would suggest not to do anything to it. Treat it with bandages, it will burst on its own soon.”
The boil didn’t burst. The puss spread slowly throughout the body. Daadi lay on the ottoman crying in pain—she would not ask anyone for anything.
My name had been registered in the local school. I became busy among new friends and new books, yet before leaving for school in the morning and after returning home, I would at first run to Daadi, “Daadi, I’m going to school.” “Daadi, I have come home.” Daadi would softly touch my head and kiss me. I had learned the tables of two, three, and four sitting next to Daadi. I would memorize and say it out loud to her and she would listen to them with her eyes closed.
One day, we were asked to come to school wearing white clothes. It was early morning and we were celebrating the 15th of August. I bathed and got ready while it was still dark. Before moving out for school, I went to Daadi’s room, “Daadi, today is the day of independence. i am going to school. The tricolor will be hoisted there.”
Daadi said, “Munni, do get some freedom in a pouch.”
After all of us sang Jana Gana Mana, Sister made us stand in a line and distributed batasha. It was just a few tiny pieces of batasha but to us girls, it seemed to fill entire baskets. Many of the girls wolfed down their portions right then and there. I put the two batashas in my mouth and kept sucking on them. On my way home I thought of keeping half for Daadi and decided to sing Jana Gana Mana to her.
When I reached her room, I put my hand on her back and said, “See Daadi, I really have brought freedom for you, tied in a pouch.” But Daadi neither laughed nor said anything to these words, and neither did she turn to my side.
I immediately reached close and started shaking her.
She would not budge easily. She really had got her freedom.
Laccha: a circular silver ornament for the toe
Paan: betel leaf
Paandaan: the container for storing paan and the ingredients used in making a paan are stored.
Gutkha: a mixture of areca, catechu, betel nut, lime, tobacco, and mint, commonly used as a condiment in paan.
Chhunchhuna: herbal concoction
Also, read a book review of Kalicalypse: Subcontinental Science Fiction , a dual language edition (English-Italian), edited by Tarun K. Saint , Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay , and Francesco Verso , published in The Antonym
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