Translated from the Hindi by Indrani Tuli
It seemed like everyone was daunted by Sayani Bua’s (Competent Aunt’s) disciplined personality. The household ran with the precision of the machines which operated without a glitch.
Everyone would get up exactly at five o’clock in the morning and be off to walk in the garden for an hour followed by a drink of tea and milk. After that, Annu was to go for her studies. Bhai Sahab too would get busy with his newspaper, office files, and other important work. Next came the shower o’clock, sharp at nine. The clothes that Aunt would select were to be worn and everyone was to meet at the dining table, have their meals, and go for their allotted activities.
Competent Aunt, as she was called, was not actually her name. People started calling her so after seeing her competence but I must say that whoever named her must have been a connoisseur of the naming science. Even as a child she was not only punctual but to everybody’s utter amazement, handled her belongings with such order and finesse as to evoke only awe and compliment. It is said that once she bought a pencil, she would use it till it became so small that it wasn’t in a condition at all to be gripped. It was beyond the ability of that pencil to ever get lost or run out untimely by the breaking off of the lead again and again. The eraser which she had bought in her fourth grade went on working until she reached the ninth standard.
As she was growing up, she continued to be precocious and more mature for her age and her life could not simply be imagined without the disciplinarian attitude. My father used to often draw her example to keep us in line. Deeply intimidated by it, we kept praying to God that she should stay in her in-laws’ or else the life of the likes of us would be in utter dismay, for sure.
So, imagine my mental turmoil when they proposed that I shift to my Competent Aunt’s home and manage my studies. I flatly refused, saying that I wasn’t going to study further. But my father was so insistent on my education that he left no stones unturned. He coaxed me, tried explaining with loving kindness, and even reprimanded me till he succeeded. I bid adieu to my dear home and reached Aunt’s place, chanting the name of my tutelary deity.
There was no doubt that Aunt did welcome me with great warmth but as I had grown up listening to her fabled persona and had concocted such a dire image of herself in my mind that it overshadowed her love and kindness which failed to make any impact.
But Aunt’s husband, whom we used to call Bhai Sahab, was a good-natured and perfect gentleman. But my favorite in the house was her five-year-old daughter, Annu.
The Almighty was only able to feel how much I had suffered and what I had to sacrifice to adjust to that monotonous and mechanical routine of that house. I felt bad for Annu, the little one who suffered the most. That five-year-old could never enjoy her childhood as maturity engrossed her before time. She seemed surrounded by an unknown fright. Within a few days, all my laughter and happiness too had vanished under that oppressive atmosphere in that house.
Aunt’s married life had completed 15 long years but looking at all the household objects, it seemed as if everything had been bought just the day before. The glass and porcelain they had bought while setting up their household looked new even after fifteen years of daily use. Aunt took it upon herself to keep those fineries cleaned. No one ever dared to break even one single thing. Once, the servant broke a trough and he was badly beaten for his fault. She hated breakage and destruction and so it was beyond her tolerance. She was very proud of her immaculate household. She often used to tell Bhai Sahab that if she had not come to that house, she had no idea what would have happened to that poor man. The voice inside my head murmured, whatever the situation would have been, all of us would be human beings at least, not made of clay.
Despite Aunt’s vigilant eyes and care over food and drink, Annu caught a fever. An entire month passed with all kinds of possible treatments but her fever did not subside. Aunt’s anxiety knew no bounds as Annu turned paler. Looking at her, I felt there was no virus in her body but the fright of her mother which was devouring her gradually. She was unable to utter anything out of fear even though she had suffered from them… she was just getting sicker every day.
After a series of examinations, the doctors suggested that the child should be taken to the mountains and all care should be taken to keep her happy. Everything should happen according to the child’s wish and that would be the only treatment. But to be honest, did that poor child have any wishes of her own left in her mind? Bhai Sahab, now had a formidable challenge ahead of him as this was hardly possible in the presence of Aunt because even unknowingly, no one else’s wish could oppose hers. Bhai Sahab probably had opened up about it with the doctor who soon insisted the child be kept away from the mother. Aunt was very hesitant but she would not dare oppose the doctor. She agreed to stay back.
Preparations started for Annu and Bhai Sahab to go to the mountains. At first, a list of clothes for both of them was made, then of shoes, socks, warm clothes, bedspreads, and utensils. While packing everything, Aunt dispensed firm instructions to her husband that not a single thing should get lost— “Look, take care of this frock, I have spent seven rupees for its stitching. Don’t you break these cups or else the set of fifty rupees will be spoiled… and yes, I am fully aware that you don’t care for the insignificant glass tumblers but, they have been with me for fifteen long years and there is not even a single scratch anywhere and if it breaks, let me tell you, it will not be good.”
After she had finished with her instructions for the husband about all things and more, it was Annu’s turn. Aunt had prepared a menu for Annu, of what was to be eaten on which day and at what time, when should she take a stroll, and what should she wear, everything was planned and decided. I kept thinking about how she tied a noose around their faraway sojourn with a regime like this. When she thought she was done with her instructions, she told her husband in a slightly softer voice, “Take care of yourself too, keep having milk and fruits properly.” Even after such a long list of instructions, she had to make it clear, “I don’t know how you people will manage without me, I do not agree with this arrangement… listen, write a letter every day without fail.”
At last, the moment arrived when Bhai Sahab was to leave home with Annu and a servant. Aunt caressed Annu with much love, she even cried… which was a new thing to me. That day, for the first time I realized that there was tenderness hidden under her grim stern exterior. She kept looking at the tonga (horse-drawn, two-wheeled vehicle) as long as it was visible. After that, she lay motionless for some time but from the very next day, everything returned to normal. Bhai Sahab’s letter with the news of Annu’s health used to reach Aunt daily. Aunt too used to reply every day where she reiterated her oral instructions in writing, the only difference in the letters were the dates, the matter probably remaining the same. I thought of saying, “Aunt, why do you take the pain of writing to Bhai Sahab every day… ask him to paste the letter on a cardboard and hang it in front of the bed… read every day after waking up in the morning.” I couldn’t amass enough courage to blurt it out though.
After about a month had passed, Bhai Sahab’s letter did not come one day… not on the next day either. Aunt got worried. She was unable to concentrate on any household work. It seemed the strict arrangements of the house began to suddenly slump. The third day also passed without a letter. Aunt’s anxiety superseded. She came to my room at night to sleep with me but she passed the night in nightmares or crying. It seemed the femininity she had kept suppressed over the years had started melting and gushed out in full force. She continued murmuring about her apprehension that Bhai Sahab was returning home alone, Annu was not with him… her eyes turned red from excessive crying. I tried to assure her in different ways, but she didn’t listen. It made me sad too, understanding Aunt’s mental condition and thinking about Annu.
At that moment, the servant brought Bhai Sahab’s letter for Aunt. She opened it with trembling hands and began to read. I held my breath too while looking at Aunt’s face. She suddenly threw away the letter and started crying, beating her head. I was so astounded that I didn’t have the nerve to think any further. The image of cherubic Annu swirled before my eyes. So… is it true that Annu is no more? How did all this happen? I had acquired the courage to pick up the letter—
“Dear Sayani (Competent),
I do not understand how to write this letter to you… how should I convey the sad news to you?
Oh, my queen! I still expect you to bear this loss patiently. At times, we have to face difficult moments of life and our greatness is in tolerating them courageously. This world is mortal. Whatever has been created will disappear one day or the other. Perhaps keeping this fact in mind, it has been said that infatuation with the illusion of the world is the root cause of all the sorrows of life. I could not save our dear thing in spite of all your careful instructions and my conscious effort… what else can I name it other than my misfortune? I am solely responsible for the loss…”
The words were getting blurred because of my tearful eyes… my hands were trembling. This was the first time in my life that I was reading about someone’s death. My eyes crossed the words and hurriedly moved to the last part of the letter— “Have patience, my queen, try to bear with me and forget about what has happened. Yesterday at four o’clock in the afternoon, two of the cups from your set of fifty rupees fell from my hand and broke. Annu is getting better. We are returning soon.”
For a minute I stood bewildered. This was the second shock. As soon as I could realize it, I burst out laughing. How did I inform my Aunt about the truth, how was I able to convince her, I am not in a position to write about all that even after much trying. But, my Aunt burst out laughing too though her eyes were full of tears after she came to know the reality. My Aunt, who once had thrashed the servant for breaking the trough of five annas was now laughing even after knowing about the breakage of the cups from the fifty rupee-set… laughing her heart out as if she had found the treasures of heaven.