Category Archives: Stories

Mattresses

(A story written in haste. From tweets that would not let me sleep. Based on a nightmare. Written so fast, that punctuation would have slowed me down. One day, I shall edit, punctuate, clean up the story, which has to be a work of fiction, surely. Till then, this )

(oh, and gadda=mattress, gaddas=mattresses)

“Hurry up, and open the lock!”, whispered an impatient voice through the cold fog.

“I’m trying”, she hissed back. “It’s stuck”.

Her slim fingers were stiff in the cold winter. It was dark, the lock frozen in the frost of a chill Delhi night. It would be dawn in a few hours, and the lock would have been easy in the mellow warmth of the day.

“Let me help you”, her younger sister said. Together, they blew into the lock, their sweet warm breath melting the icicles in the cold metal. The lock came alive now in her hands, and Pari turned the key with ease. The heavy lock gave way, belying the weakness of the thin wooden door that led them indoors.

Footsteps crunched on the ground behind them, the frost still crisp on the ground.

“What took you so long bhai?”, Pari asked. “We have so much to do before they all arrive. They will be here soon.”

“The rickshaw wanted more money.”

“Why?” demanded the youngest, always ready to fight for her rights. “It is always seven rupees from the hall to here. Ten for three people.”

“I had to give more”, he said, tired already. Gesturing to the strings of lights adorning their small house, he said, “This. He said it is a ‘shadi ka ghar’. A house of marriage. I had to give him more.”

Pari smiled a half smile. “You bhai, if we left it to you, the marriage costs would have doubled”. He smiled back. They both knew how they had saved to spend well for this wedding. It was their father’s second marriage, but they did not mind that. The new mother was not bad looking, and father had beaten them less since he took on with her. It would be good to have someone to share the burden of the house.

Maybe, Pari thought, now she could go out and work. All her friends did, and they all had money for nice things like lipsticks and nail polish and new salwar suits. Some days, they even out to the markets together, bunking work. She looked after her father’s house, and had to stay at home. Even today, she was in charge of getting the house ready for the guests before they came back from the wedding ceremonies before dawn.

She had stayed on as long as she could at the wedding, and now they had very little time before the others returned, bringing back a new bride in a triumphal procession.

“The gaddas are upstairs, run and get them bhai!”, she cried out! The three siblings got to work quickly, handing over things to each other quickly, used to working together in silence with speed.

“The front room can take twelve gaddas”, Pari declared

“Ten” her brother said.

“Make it twelve”, Pari insisted. “The room is big enough.”

They were very proud of their new house. Baba had bought it just weeks ago from a local family. It was still painted a colour chosen by the old owners, but that could not be helped. Pari planned to paint it pink when they had the money for it. In this house, there was enough room for everybody. And there was a terrace too, where she could escape to see the sky. Even the stairs to the terrace were covered with a pucca roof, and that is where they had kept the gaddas that had been hired from the shop in the market.

She sent her brother up to throw them down to her. She and her sister caught them, and quickly made up beds on the floor in the front room. She had hired forty gaddas, for that is the number that makes up a wedding. She knew that many in the family would not be able to come. Times were bad, and it was not safe to step out, they had heard.

Most people had phoned to say they would come…”but,let us see”, they said, after a pause. They could all see. Lives were precious. But it was a wedding in the family after all, and they would not be able to live down the shame if the arrangements were not good enough. It is okay to have a few extra gaddas, she thought. She would handle Baba’s anger when the time came. Surely he would not be angry, now that the new wife was coming to make him happy.

She quickly went to the kitchen to put on a large pan of water to boil the tea. Everyone would want tea and biscuits when they came back. It was cold, and there were ceremonies to welcome the bride. They would not sleep till dawn, she was sure.

The middle room had been kept for the groom and bride. Everyone had to walk through it to get to the kitchen and bathroom at the back of the house, but it could not be helped. She had bought long garlands of flowers to partition the bed, and added a bright bedsheet as a curtain. The room looked perfect, and she resisted the temptation to fit two more gaddas in the space where people would walk through. Not today, she thought. Let Baba tell his bride that he had made a whole room only for her.

“Is it all ready?” she called out.

“Done! All the beds are ready.”

“Did you fill the water? Is there soap where it should be?” She called out as she rushed out of the kitchen. She could hear them arriving down the street. A wedding party is a loud business even in troubled times.

The front room twinkled in the flashing lights from the string put up outside. On off. On. Off. The lights racing to catch each other in an unending game, as if there was never going to be an end to the cycle.

Within minutes the house was full of relatives. The bride giggling. Her father looking on proudly, his laughter joining in with the other men. Singing. Her aunts singing bawdy songs out of tune. Tea being served, with a large tray of rectangular biscuits. Little children asleep in unlikely places. Slowly, the best corners were occupied by the most careful aunts, handed over to older uncles drifting off to sleep. The tea finished, the laughter and songs turning to chatter, as stories of family weddings and old scandals were retold. The bride’s eyes were heavy with sleep, the groom’s with expectation. Pari led her out of the front room, clearing the corner for the aunts to sleep.

Her brother and sister were already asleep in the kitchen. Fewer guests meant that each of them got a gadda to themselves. They’d better not get used to it, Pari thought. There won’t be a soft mattress for all of them anymore. The mattresses they had would go to the middle room. Everything would belong to the middle room now, she realised with a sigh.

Leaving her Baba to look after his wife, Pari looked for a place for herself. The house was full, like her heart. She liked it this way, looking after her own. She had done this since her mother died when she was six. It was okay if there was no room here. Her father’s house now had another floor with a roof.

She climbed the stairs, only to meet a mountain of gaddas. All tumbled over each other. Twenty six gaddas, waiting to do their job. To be a barrier between their person and the hard sharp world. To ensconce. To protect, even if for a while. To be there, to say, it’s tough out there, but here, you will be all right. She would not have a gadda everyday, she knew. Today was a day when riches flowed like a river.

She snuggled into the tiny space between the gaddas and the halfwall along the stairwell, pulling a few over her for warmth. I could bury myself in these gaddas, she thought, as she drifted off to sleep.

They were all still sleeping, when the mobs came.

“It’s this house!” they called out. Voices hoarse, chants repeated. Aunts screaming. Uncles and cousins sliced in their sleep. Children shrieking, suddenly silenced.

Pari heard it all.

Frozen, she heard the chants grow louder as bloodlust took over the mob. There were five- ten – then fifteen or more voices. They were in her house. They were here.

She could not move, and move she must. She must save them. She needed help.

Her voice was stuck in her throat, her bile rising, her gob trapped. Or was that her tongue, she no longer knew. She knew that voice, it was her brother – calling out – “Who are you…?”
Brother mine, shut up and hide, her mind cried.
But her brother could not even finish his question when she heard more chants, louder as if victorious.
Familiar chants. Tell them, she shouted, but the words were inside her.

Tell them who we are! They will stop.
But a mob has no eyes, no ears, no brain.
There was no stopping them. They were already in the kitchen. In a minute, they would be pounding up the stairs, coming for her. She struggled, quietly, desperately, making her way under the gaddas. They were heavy, but she was filled with a frenzy now, an urgency that gave her strength she had not known before. Seconds, she had seconds. The tumbled mattresses made room for her, doing their job. To be a barrier between the hard, sharp world and her. It came for her, but could not reach her. She stayed still. Quiet. Not a breath came out of her, much like her family downstairs.
She dared not, they could not.

“What is this?” cried a strong loud voice downstairs.

The footsteps rushed down the stone steps. She was alone again. She could breathe.

She heard them downstairs.

“What have you done?” The voice had power. Surely their leader.

“Do you not have eyes?” The leader was angry.

A murmur. A whine of protest.

“How could we know?” called out one voice. Bravery of another kind.

“The house was on the list”, cried out another.

“We got the list”, chimed a third.

“You told us to follow the list”, called out another.

“One of our own”, roared their leader. “You attacked one of our own! During a wedding! The whole family. How could you not see one of our own”

“All wedding lights look the same”, replied another.

As they filed out of the house, the lights kept twinkling, chasing one another, as if in a race that would never end.

Bandarnama

Abhi haal mein sheher se bade bhaiyya aaye the, kucch din thehrenge.

Dilli sheher mein unki sarkaari naukri thi, to aksar ve chhuti le kar desh bhar mein ghoomte the. Videsh bhi jaane ki tayyari thi, par abhi tak voh suyog nahin hua tha, haan khabar poori duniya ki rakhte ka shauq tha. Bade bhaiiya ko teen cheezon ka shauk tha:  nayi nayi jagah dekhne ka, alag alag rehen sehen ke tareeke batorne ka, aur, ajoobi khabrein sun-ne sunaane ka. Bas, is hi shauq ki vajah se veh gaanv to saal mein ek hi baar aa paate the. Aur jab aate, badi rangeen kahaniyan le kar aate. Na jaane vaqt kaise guzar jaata. Unki chutti yoon shuru hoti, aur yoon hi phurr se khatm ho jaati.

Hum sab ko bade bhaiyya ke aane ka besabri se intezaar rehta. Unki potli dadima ki kahaniyon se kam na hoti. Par is baar to laga ki veh dadima ki potli hi utha laaye the! Kissa jo tha, voh to ajab hi tha…par vaise dekhen to koi baat hi nahin thi..

Kehte hain ki insaan jo hai, voh sadiyon pehle bandar tha. Bade bhaiyya yeh sheher se seekh kar aaye the. Kisi angrez Darwin ne bade saal khoj karke yeh pata kiya tha ki saare insaanon ke poorvaj ek tarah ke bandar the – yaani ki bandar hamaare baap dada hue. Aur iska matlab hua ki aaj kal ke bandar bhi hamare bhai bandhu hue.

Hamaare pardaada jo the voh hanuman bhakt the, to unke saath saath dadaji, phir pitaji aur phir hum sabhi ha mangalvar hanuman mandir jaate the aur dher saara bundi prasad jam ke khaate the. Bandar bhi hamaare dost the. Jo bhi hamaare paas hota that – roti, bundi -us mein bandaron ka hissa zaroor hota, aur hum mil baant ke kha lete the.  Ma bhi kehti hain – Hanumanji ka roop hain bandar. Haan haan main jaanta hoon ki vaanar aur bandar ek samaan nahin, par aaj kal vaanar kahaan se dhoondh laayein. Aap shaant ho kar bandaron se hi kaam chala lijiye – ab to yehi hamaare bhai hain.

Haan, to main kahan tha? Bandar ki baat chal rahi thi. To baat yoon hai ki hamaare gaaon ke bandar to bahut hi seedhe saadharan hain. Hamaare logon ki tarah. Par bhabhi jab sheher se lauti theen, to baap re – shehri bandaron ki aisi kahaniyan le kar aayein, ki ham to hans hans ke lot pot ho gaye.

Ek baar unke ghar mein bandar ghus aaya. Ab bhaiyya koi bade afsar to hain nahin ki ghar mein naukar chaakar hon aur unko bula ke bandar ko bhagaaya jaaye. Bhabhi ghar pe akeli theen. Unka ghar kucch puraane style ka tha. Baramdah khula hua, uske ek taraf gusalkhana aur doosri taraf rasoighar. Din ka khana kha kar bhabhi andar kamre mein oongh rahin thein. Achanak ek aawaz aayi, bartan ke girne ki. Bhabhi ghabra ke uthi, socha koi chor ghus aaya hai.Ya phir phir billii doodh mein moonh maarne chali aayi hai. Uth khadi houeen – aur main aap ko bata doon ki hamaari bhabhi koi aisi vaisi maamooli cheez nahin hain. Lambe kad ki, Tez aankhein, teekhi naak aur kya aawaz. Unke gusse ko to gaanv ka har baccha jaanta hai. Yeh rasoi ki billi kya cheez thi.

Bhabhi uthi aur rasoi ki aur badheen. Kya dekhti hain vahan ja kar ki koi billi nahin, bada sa bandar baitha tha. Vah, yeh kaise?! Billi to khidki ke sariyon ke beech se aa jaati thi. Par yeh to bada sa bandar tha-  yeh kaise ghus aaya?  Rasoi ki kundi ko khol ke hi aaya hoga – jaise hum kholte hain. Maze se rasoi ke thade pe baith ke kele kha raha tha. Ek nazar bhabhi ke tamtamate chehre par daal kar, aaraam se kela khaata raha.

Bhabhi bhi kaun si kam theen. Zor se gurraeyeen – Bhaag! Bandar Bhaag!

Bandar ne ek na suni.

Phir kya tha. Bandar aur Bhabhi ke beech chhidh gayi jang. Par yeh to sheet yuddh ke samaan tha. Idhar bhabhi ne zor ke lalkaar di, to udhar bandhar ne ek phoonkaar. Bhabhi ne haath uthaaya, to bandar ne apne daant dikhaaye. Bhabhi peeche hateen kucch der ke liye, to bandar bhi shaant ho gaya.

Phir bhabhi laathi le kar aayein, aur zor se rasoi ke aur bhaagi. Ab rasoi ke dwar ko lakshman rekha hi samajh lein, kyonki bhabhi ne usko paar na kiya. Laathi uthaaye bas vaar karna ka bhaan kar raheen theen, jab bandar ne bhi do char bartan uthaaye sur phenk daale bhaabhi ki taraf. Donon ne seema rekha ka palan kiya. Na bhabhi ki laathi na bandar ke bartan chaukhat to laanghe. Kuchh der ek doosre ko takne ke baad, bhabhi thak kar phir kamre me aa gayeen.

Sheet yuddh ki tarah hi, yeh bhi kuchh khud hi phusss sa ho gaya. Jab Bhabhi phir rasoi ki aur gayeen to bandar ja chuka tha.

Usi din bhabhi ne rasoi pe taala laga diya. Ab bandar aata, tala tatolta aur phir kucch der baith kar chala jaata. Jab bhabhi ne bhaiyya to key kissa batlaaya to unhone sar pakad liya. Kehne lage, pehle to daftar mein bandaron ko jhelo, ab ghar pe bhi!

Hum sab bhaiiya bhabhi ke shehri bandaron ki kahaani sun ke thahake laga rahe the, ki tabhi ma vahan se guzreen. Unhonne poori baat to suni nahin, bas bhaiyya ko zara sa sun liya aur tokne lageen. “Apne daftar ke logon ko bandar kehte ho! Kuchh to lihaaz karo. Yahi tameez sikhayi hai kya humne? Tum na bolo phir bhi aisa sochoge to zahir ho hi jaayega. Jitni izzat doge, utni milegi… “

Ma ka kya tha, voh to ma theen. Ek baar shuru ho jayein to unko kaun rokne vaala. Bhabhi chupchaap nikal leen kamre se, aur unki hansi ke phawwaron ki aawaaz doosre kamre se aane lagi. Ma ne bhi suni, aurr thodi si khisyaaeen.

Bhaiyaa ne ek dum se lagaam thaam li. “Nahin maa, main afsaron ki nahin, asli bandaron ki baat kar raha hoon. Poore sheher mein naak mein dam kar rakha hai, par sarkaari daftaron ko to apna ghar hi bana baithe hain. Phir bade sahab thehre aap ki tarah Hanuman ji ke bhakt, unko bhagaane bhi nahin dete. Ek kamre se doosre kamre mein jaana bhi khatre ka kaam ho gaya hai. Haath mein kaagaz le ke chalo to chheen letein hain. Hamein to kameez ke neeche filon ko daba ke le jaana padta hai – varna bade sahab ko kya jawab dein? Yeh kaise bolein, ki sahab, kaam to humne kar liya tha, par bandar file uda le gaya!”

Ab to ma se bhi na ruka gaya. Veh bhi hamaare saath khul ke hans rahi theen. Yeh shehri bandar to bade hi tamashebaz nikle. Hamaare yahan to kheton se kuch thoda sa le jaate hain, baaki pedon se phal vagerah kha leten hin. Ghar ya dukannon mein to kabhi na aaye.

“Par is baar to sarkaar ne sahi sabak sikhaaya.” Bhaiyya ka bakhaan abhi baaki tha. “Sarkaar ne ek ajooba istimaal kiya hai.”

Ajooba sun kar hamaari aankhen badi badi gol gol ho gayeen. “Bolein Bhaiyya, kaisa ajooba?”

“Arre, yeh ekdum nayi baat hai, suno. Tumne bahurupiye dekhen hain? Nahin dekhe? Bahurupiye jo hote hain, voh naye naye bhes badal ke apna dhong rachaate hain. Is baar unko bandar ban ke bandaron ko bhagaane ka kaam diya. Hamaare daftar mein bhi aaye the.”

“Phir kya hua?”

“Hona kya tha? Jo idhar tha, voh udhar. Asli bandar oopar, nakli bandar neeche. Kaheen aage, kucch peechhe. Filein baani hathiyaar, aur jo bhi saamne tha bana auzaar. Tehez nehez kar ki rakh diya poora daftar. Aur bandar agle din phir haazir! Suna hai poore chaalis din lagenge. Jab sheher jaaonga, tab dekhenge. Yeh shehri bandar to bade hi chaalak hote hain”

“Beta, sheher jab lautoge to sambhal ke rehna. Dekhna kaheen bandar tumhaari naukri na kar rahein hon!”

Yeh aawaz to pados ke chacha ki thi. Bade hi mazakiya the, aur jab bhaiyya gaaon aate the to roz guppen ladaane shaam ko ghar aa jaate the. Chacha roz subah teen ghante akhbaar padhte the aur poori duniya ki khabar rakhne ka daava karte the.

“Haan chacha, theek hi kehte hain aap. Kya maloom, bandar ke naam ke provident fund account bhi khul gayein hon”

“Ab jab bandar darwaaze khol sakte hain, filon ko thikaane laga sakte hain, to baaki jaane aur kya kya kar lein”

“Lo chacha, aapne suna nahin, Africa mein kya hua?”

Ek aur kahaani, aur hum sab apna khel bhula kar phir iske ghere mein aa gaye.

“Africa vala kissa? Haan, haan – bacchon ko sunaon. Bade maze ka hai!”

“To hua yoon, ki ek camera jungle mein rakha gaya tha. Rakha tha, ya reh gaya tha, main nahin jaanta, par laga is bandar ke haath. Bas, phir kya tha. Bandar ne uthaya, aurr de dhana dhan chamkili lens ke aage apna munh karke, uska button dabaata raha. Tasveerein khinchti raheen. Ab bandar camera ko dekh raha tha, ya camera bandar ko – yeh to ham nahin jaante, par donon roobaroo the. Aur jab tasveerein nikali gayeen, to bhai maloom pada ki khareedaar bahutere the. Sawaal yeh tha ki khareedar to apne dollar liye khade the, par bechne waala kaun tha? Camere ka maalik? Ya bandar, jisne tasveerein kheenchi thein?”

“Wah bhaiyya, yeh to bilkul Birbal ka kissa ho gaya!”

“Bilkul”, Chacha bole. “Yahan to aur bhi haqdaar hain – par unka zikr koi nahin kar raha. Agar tasveer ka mol hai to na sirf kheenchne wale ka, par nikaalne wale ka bhi to haq banta hai, ya nahin?”

“Aur phir, agar yeh keemat bandar ke haq ki maani bhi jaaye, to use denge kaise?”

Bhaiyya ab poore dil se is behas ka maza loot rahe the. Hum bhi kucch kam na the. Ek teer idhar se chala, to ek vaar udhar se. Kisi ne to Bandar Bank bhi khol daala. Aur kisi ne itihaas ke pannon se kisse nikaale jab (slaves) aurr (aborigines) ko insaan gina hi nahin jaata tha. Ab agar bandar hamaare pushtaini bhai jan hain, to kya unka haq hum aise hi nakaar dein.

Insaaf aur haq ki ladai der raat tak chali. Hum ne to faisla kar hi daala tha ki bandar ko apna mehnataana milna hi chahiye jab chhotu ne ek aur sawaal pooch dala.

“Aagar bandar bhaiyya ka bank account khul raha hai, to kya Ma hamaare bhed-bakri-gaye ke liye bhi account kholengi?”

Itne kaagaz patri ka soch ke hi sab ka dil dehal gaya. Bank mein account kholna koi aasan kaam to na tha – hazaar sawaal aur dhai hazaar kagazaat. Voh karega kaun?

Phataphat taye yeh ho gaya ki kisi bandar janvar ka koi haq nahin banta aur agar banta bhi hai, to voh apne account khud hi ja ke khol lein. ‘Jo khud ko sambhaale, vahi sayaana’ – keh ke ma ne sab ko daant – dapat ke,  baatti bujha ke sone bhej diya.

(c) meetawsengupta

I know her better…

“I’ve been here longer than any of you. I know her better. She has her moods” …the soft voice was almost a whisper

 

“Yes, we can see that you’ve been here ages.. look how soft you’ve become!”. There was a hint of laughter in the crisp voice.

 

“Listen to her, she knows more than you. It is tough being here. Just because you are young and bright doesn’t mean it will be easier for you”, added the thick matronly voice.

 

“She’s not so bad, really”. The soft whisper was back. “She can be tough, she expects a lot from each of us, but she is fair. No one has to do more than their fair share. See what happens in other households. With anyone else, we’d have been squeezed dry everyday”

 

“That is true”. There was softness in the matronly voice too now. “I’ve been with one other before I came here. The things I saw there, I could not tell you. There were horrors, horrors”

 

She wanted to be asked more. They all knew that. It would be cruel not to let her tell her stories.

 

The younger one piped up, “What horrors? What did you see? Were they… beaten?”

 

The matronly voice lowered itself, as the others leaned in – as if blown by the wind. “How do I tell you this… there was.. segregation. Some were beaten everyday. They said that it was the only way to get all the bad stuff out of them. But it was worse – one was .. even burnt. I was young then, I thought it was by mistake. But the older ones told me it had happened before.”  There was a little shudder in the voice.

“I was glad when she gave me away, but scared too. This is a nice home to come to, I was lucky. We all are.”

“But there are too many of us here”. The young bright one was almost dancing. The wind had picked up speed, it seemed, for they could all feel the lift that brought a lilt to her voice. “Sometimes I feel lost here. As if I’ve been forgotten right at the back”.

A pause.

“But it is nice too”, she added hastily as she noticed the cold silence around. “At least there is always someone around”

“If there were fewer of us, each would have had to do more”. The voice that spoke was new. But very old. Sharp, edgy. It rasped, as if it had holes. “I have seen my share of such days. Why do you think I look old so soon? Yes, you – bright young chirpy thing waiting for your chance – I know you love the attention. But you would not if you knew how much hard work it is.”

Nobody dared to respond. Till the soft one spoke up.

“I hear you, really. I am almost there myself. I remember when I came you were almost the only one here. A few came and went. I too have gone soft now – we have seen much together, have we not?” The soft whisper was soothing. “You bear the scars of the wear and tear, and I am getting there too. But she will not throw us out, she is too fond of us”

 

“Yes, that she is, she is fond of us”. You could almost hear a laugh in the rasp – the voice shook. “She has said I remind her of the old days, of the struggles, of simpler times and happier battles. We went through a lot together, we had little else….” the rasping voice trailed away.

 

“It’s not always like that you know. I have been here a while and know how to stretch myself when needed. A little adjustment here and there and I fit again. But not all can be so adjusting.” The matronly voice had a bit of self congratulation held in check.

Not surprising – she was the one who was called whenever things got difficult. Easily blending into the background, perfect for any occasion. She knew that after a certain age, the mistress would like to rely on an old favourite. She worked hard to keep her prime position. Giving way sometimes to the new bright things, she knew that they would feel too loud after a while. The ones older than her were for comfort – but could not be seen around. She looked after herself even as she greyed gently, always just so, always ready, always presentable. She did the job, no more. Never once seeking attention, she knew she would be safe till she was useful.

“You are right, not all can be so adjusting. Do you remember that one – who came for a day or two and was sent away. She said only one word – suffocating. And that was it. Gone, sent away. Who knows to what fate”

“And then, do you remember that other one? I thought she was tough. But, oh, so …. ugly.”

“Yes, I remember her. She was put to mopping duty. Lost all her colour quickly enough. I saw her the other day – as thin as a rag”

“And then, that one – who would just not get it right. Would go left when asked to go right, would go right when asked to swing left. Just would not do what was needed. She had to go too, was doing more harm than good. She was short too, much too short. I remember the street boys staring at her when she was taken out. I wonder where she is now”

“Why do we care now, she is gone, and so are the others. Some new ones will come, some will go. But now listen, I have a story to tell you. When I went out with her yesterday…..”

The easy chatter carried on. They had all day, it was their day off. There were others on duty that day, holding up the standards of the house.

The sun rose, and then lowered itself in the open sky. There was a gentle breeze. They swung as they spoke. Some stiffening a bit as the day wore on. The shadows lengthened. It would be time to go soon, they knew. The comfortable chatter was silenced in the gloaming. As companions who have known each other long, they knew each other’s silences well.

They waited.

Soon, the sound of feet climbing up the stairs. The creaking of the terrace door. The familiar face. She had come herself today.

She was happy. She had a friend with her too. They continued laughing and talking as she came closer.

“Look Nandita, I have so many”, she laughed.

“I must have a clear-out one day soon”

They froze, the wind held still as she spoke these words.

But she did not notice, as she advanced towards them.

“I have too many clothes, and you made me buy more today”, her excited voice carried on.

“I will have to give some of them away. Look, some of them are so old, they have holes in them!”, she said as she picked up the dress that was the oldest of them all. “And look at this T-Shirt, soft with age. It feels like a whisper of wind when I wear it, but it is so old. I’ve had these two since I started our business”

She moved on towards the angrakha kurta. “Now this one I cannot live without, it has saved me so often. It makes me look like an aunty, but it works on every occasion. So old, and still looks good”

Gathered together in the basket now, the clothes edged away from each other. Their easy companionship was the friendship of equals. Not any longer – something had broken.

“I’m almost done Nandita”, she trilled. “We can go and have tea in a minute. I’ll just get the new one – isn’t it nice and bright. I thought it would cheer me up”

“A bit too bright for you, if you ask me. If anything, you should give this one away”. Nandita spoke for the first time, but every one of them heard her hard, glittering voice and winced.

“Give them all away. There are so many poor people around”, she added breezily, in the voice of those who like to sound secure. Have a complete clear out. It will be fun! Shall I bring the big bin liners?”

She had no idea of the devastation she had unleashed.

They heard her and edged closer to each other again. Cold dry comfort of those who had lost their voice.

All of them were in the same basket now.

 

 

What was it that toughened her so?

She was quite perfect in every way. The house shone, even if it was bare. The jobs were always done with quiet efficiency. The clothes always washed. And ironed. So what if there were only two sets of office clothes, you only wore one at a time – she would say. Her perfectionism was legend. Loved, respected, a bit feared and even hated a teensy bit by all. But no one could ever say she was not right. She was always right.

And she let us all know. Was this genuine self belief in its purest form? She did believe that she was a role model for everybody. That is what she strived to be – a model of perfection.

Nobody, but nobody could work harder than she could. And she had done it all. She came from a town small enough to just escape being called a village. The stories she did not tell were deeper than the ones she did. No, she did not tell stories. She was not the kind of grandmother who told stories. Because stories came from the world of fiction, and such lies were abhorrent to her. Unless she believed them, then they became truth. This is how she reconciled with religion, I always believed.

It was a poor household. With a feel of plenty. The right things were always there in abundance – fruits, ghee, food, sugar, milk, almonds. These were the right things to eat. Never, in her house have I eaten anything that was sinful, or indulgent without it being healthy. And I never felt the lack. Of course there was always halwa. Cooked as no one else ever could. She made it all herself.

This was a lady who made it all herself. Her persona, her identity, her family. All her work. And boy, did she work hard and well. Nobody could test grain as well as her – a few grains chewed, she knew why they tasted so. Only the best were bought. She washed and dried them with her own hands. For many years milled them with her own hands. As her two cows watched her. She milked them and fed them. Made her own butter and ghee – solo. Made the pinnis that never ran out – and never tasted the same anywhere else. Where did she find the energy?

She was tough. The toughest person there ever can be. How else could they have walked across Pakistan during the partition, flung themselves into trains, crossed over to India and then proudly decided to not take a penny of relief. They stayed in a relief camp for one night, because all offices had shut. My grandfather, a government servant, showed up at the local office the very next morning, and signed up for work. Not a grain taken at the camp, she said. Never eat what has not been earned.

Those were tough days. They had left behind everything. She remembers carrying two bags. One was full of gold, the other had food. Waiting for hours at the platform in Pakistan. They had walked and walked. Every step fraught with danger. You don’t know what real and present danger is till you have walked through a riot. Or a battle. Or war. This was it. She tells tales of bullets shooting overhead as the walking caravan lay flat on the ground. She held my father, then four, under her, pressing him into the earth to keep him safe. Then, the bullets passed and they got up and walked again. She does not tell me of what they saw on the way. They finally reached a railway station where they were told a train to India would arrive. I don’t think they knew or cared where it was headed, as long as it was to somewhere in India. They sat there amongst bundles of gold and grain, rumours swirling around them. Rumours that could only be believed, because they spoke of what they had seen.

Nobody knew when the train arrived. Nobody knows, even now, when recollecting, how long they waited at that station platform. They were alert, in a daze. So much must have happened there in every moment, but they were numb to it. Extraordinary events are reduced to the mundane when there are too many of them. The long wait, then it was. Suddenly, without notice, a train. The mad rush, the scramble. To get in first was to survive. To get ahead the only way, regardless of what you had been taught. All courtesies had been washed away by the blood spilled around them. There was no us, but the smallest unit – the family. The family had to stay together, and had to get onto that train. Or die. Or worse.

They ran, grabbing what they could. At that moment, my grandmother knew she had two bags to carry. Her hands reached out for them. As my grandfather reached out for her. The child was in someone’s arms – who remembers.. One bag made it on to the train with them, one got left behind on the platform. We do not know when they found out that it was the bag of gold that got left behind and the bag of food and flour that came with them. They were the same size. All that they owned, had inherited, traded was in that bag of gold on the platform. Left behind. They did not know it yet, but that day their gold was worthless. There were plenty of thick gold bracelets being exchanged for a bag of flour. They had what they needed that day to maintain their self respect – never beg, never take what has not been earned. They could feed themselves.

Were they offered gold for their flour? Yes, and they refused. She cooked and fed her family on a fire made of twigs, like gypsies do. This is what they had become. Homeless nomads. Their roots cut brutally as they were flung to the winds. And with them, all those who came after them. I too, ride the winds today. Because no roots are mine – they were been torn asunder then.

They had nothing but a small house received in exchange. Nothing like the big house and yard they left behind. But they took the first one on offer. Or was it a government ‘quarter’? Whatever, because ownership was meaningless at that time when everything could be taken away by someone drawing a line through a map. Nothing could be more abhorrent than living in a charitable camp. This was theirs. And they would build their lives again. All they needed they had – the will to work.

There were others who were smarter than them, of course. Others who claimed to have left behind much. Others who found hidden treasures in the houses they were allotted. Or waited to get a bigger house. Those who valued gold over grain, playing a longer game, paying the price in dignity. There were those others too. But they too had lost what was theirs. They too had that moment that they all shared. When the train came and getting ahead was the only game. That was a moment they would never forget. That is what they became. This is the foundation that they used to build their future.

My grandmother held it all together. We never knew when my grandfather’s shirt was washed and ironed. We only knew he had a freshly laid out shirt each morning. We never knew how she fed all the guests who came home in a continuous stream, but that there was a freshly cooked meal ready by the time they settled down (even if they came after the meal was done and finished). We never knew when she milled the grain, or stitched the family’s clothes. When did those sweaters get knitted? It was not her lot to sit gossiping in the sun with the others, knitting their stories into ever innovative patterns. When did the sevaiyaan become that delicious breakfast from the flour that she milled and the ghee that she made? We never knew how every corner was spotless and every sheet was fresh and crisp. Every parantha a perfect balance between soft and crisp and every dish always washed, dried and in place. There were only four anyway. When she passed on, my aunt and I fought for the two spoons that came with her from Pakistan. This was our heritage more than inheritance. She never lost a spoon, not a speck escaped her.

She built the family in ways we never understood then. Making mistakes, surely, but her atonement was solitary. Unforgiving. She stood guard over us, pushing us in every which way she knew to do more. Learning English when we did, as children we playfully bypassed her, callous to her potential and her dreams. Only knowing that she was the sharpest one around – you could never fool her. Never. She saw through everything, piecing clues together masterfully. (If only the writers of CID had faced her tonguelashing once…)

A rock. Who made us stone. Her constant refrain, a lesson taught everyday – “Man pakka karo”.. Toughen your heart (and mind). That is what held her together through tough times. That is what helped them make tough decisions. My grandfather was a Persian scholar and a homeopathic doctor. When did he have the time to learn this? Who bore the brunt of this scholarship? He never charged anybody, and all patients got a cup of tea when they visited. She was tough in her kindness too. A stray cow, in agony, lacerations and ulcers prolonging the birth of her cow. It was she who birthed the calf, solo. We could not even bear to look till the cow’s eyes had turned to soft gratitude. The tenant’s son, who could not speak till he was five – left by busy parents to her care, because she was there. He spoke, as she taught him. He was the last surgeon to operate on her a few months before she died.

There are stories about her that I have not told you. Stories of how she was fair and chubby, the prettiest of all her sisters. And the story of how love brought her to marriage. Of how she was the patron of all those who fell in love in the family, shielding them from all that was merely traditional. Of how she wore trousers at home because they were more comfortable for work. Of her temper and her tolerance.

There are stories she has never told us. Stories that made her what she was. She never showed her palm to anyone, brushing aside all possibilities of suggestions ruling her decisions. She never told us about the strange blurring of the tattoo on her arm, where her name was etched. Where she rubbed absentmindedly, always making me wonder what she was rubbing away. What was it that toughened her so, that even her memory is strength.

Meeta W Sengupta

The Perfect Husband

The following is a true story. As seen from the eyes of a child.

My mother’s closest friend was getting married. To her best friend. I was .. maybe.. 7. Some details are fuzzy.
But I remember many evenings over tea and fresh pakoras lit by their laughter. The house they visited buzzed with their joy. (No, this is not a story about whether he was a good husband or not. Carry on)

The lady came from a Gandhian family. Her mother and father had both worked closely with the Mahatma. They were Gujaratis from Ahmedabad. They were academics and writers. Activists and thinkers. Khadi was a way of life for them, among other values – I am sure. Khadi is what she wore to the wedding. A little border to a plain sari.
The gentleman came from Uttar Pradesh. Well, not quite, for I remember his glorious tales of ravines and dacoits that held me spellbound. He came from a family of poets. Some famous. Others erudite. They came to Ahmedabad for the wedding.
Some were startled at the simplicity of the affair – simpler than most Gujarati weddings. (Another day I shall tell the story of how some Punjabis came back from a wedding, starving, having only been fed one tiny icecream. Those were simpler times). It was, as tradition would have known.
As with North Indian weddings, the boy’s side seemed to take the lead. As with Gujarati weddings, the girl’s side began to look – and look away. But they were a well matched family. The bride and groom walked the seven steps together. The bantering was fast and furious. The jokes irresistible, the repartee quick.

As the pandit wrapped up, the guests got into their stride. It was time for the baithak. The famous poet, who was the groom’s uncle, had composed a poem for the occasion. After the metaphorical candle had been passed around a few times, he took centre stage. The poem was on marriage. On the perfect marriage. He spoke of Ram and Sita. Of their marriage that began young. Of their devotion to each other. Of their commitment to their joint cause – the maryaada. Of the sacrifices and suffering in the cause of what was right and just. And their unshakeable loyalty to the glory of Ram.

(As I write this, I am reminded of a little ceremony that I saw in a Bengali household. The bride was made to watch over the boiling pot of milk – to ensure prosperity – that must not boil over, for that would mean waste. And then she was to hold the pot with her bare hands, indicating her willingness to endure for the sake of the household. I kept my mouth shut that day, for the husband had no such ceremony.)

Back to the wedding and the poem. As the poem gained momentum, the restlessness on the bride’s side increased. The bride and groom were colleagues at work, equals in every way. The girl’s pedigree was certainly very visible to her family. They were evenly matched, word for word.

A subtle huddle ensued, pen and mind were applied. The words flowed.

They composed a poem right there. And then recited it – it was the story of Shiva and Shakti.

Of how Shiva was the desired one, of how Shakti in her various forms sought her salvation. Her purpose and her path were through Shiva. And of how he was incomplete without her. Of their perfect understanding. Of empowerment. Of how stories strengthened their bond. Of how the only time things got messed up for them was when families intervened. Of how the perfect wife and perfect husband were a team. Regardless of appearances and extreme moments. Of investing in continuity.

As the poems were exchanged through the night, a seven year old stayed awake.

Mudraseni 2

Mudraseni did not know how far they had travelled. It had been years since she had seen her home. She remembered her village in moments like dreams, the red earth, the blue water and then, when she tried to remember the details, it was all gone. She had been away too long.

She had grown tall and lissome, her youth budding as she learnt new ways of being. Her growing body was always balanced, as she learnt when she walked the tightrope like a natural the very first time. She was fearless, and could climb the tallest tree, sliding down the rope tied to the top with more grace than anybody else in the jungle. She learnt to be silent, to be still. In the middle of the nightly story telling session when the old wheezing priest asked for her, she knew she had learnt to disappear.

She was the only student there, so they were all her teachers. She learnt to fence with the wind – silently and swiftly. She learnt to slice, to be fearless at the sights and smells of raw destruction. The elegance was in the act, and she knew there would be rewards each time. Tomorrow she was going back to Beshabo. To learn how the instruments of the body and the instruments of the forge could be as one. She had learnt to be silent, now she would learn to talk.

******

Beshabo lived many mountains away. But their steeds were swift, their loads light. They knew the herbs that would cure tiredness, and the fruits that would sustain them. They travelled in twos – girl in training does not need a large escort. She was already wilier than the normal hunters. A creeper in her hands was deadlier than a lasso, and she could make grass the last bed the hunter would ever see. So she went, with one other, to Beshabo.

Beshabo welcomed them with a bowl of soup, warm and enriching. And langorous. It thickened her tongue, the words were stuck. They would never be so again, because she would learn to be true to her quick nature. She learnt to speak with eyes, with smiles and with wiles. She learnt to speak with anger, the snake hissing to enrage. Dulcet tones to entice, low to lay the ground. Her words were as a mattress, one could not help but sink into them. She strung them together in enchanted ways, the enchantment driving people to know not what they did, or why they did it. Later, they would not remember how they landed up where they were. But she knew, for she sent them there.

Her tongue was her sword, the sword her tongue. Both flashed and were never seen. Both left a faint memory of a swish, but one could never be sure. They were sharp and sure, and never left a mark. The cut was fine and deep, and blood oozed only when she was long gone.

Beshabo had taught her well. She was now the mistress of the honeyed sword. The mithi chhuri.

For those who liked the first Mudraseni: mudraseni

Time

Waiting in a car, sheltered from the world, I am a princess. The streets are paved for me, my carriage is plush. I pause, looking casually at the shining lights – surely they burn as bright as this even if I am not looking. Or have they been charmed by my sight?

I pause in the glimmer turned to gloaming in the shadow of my covers. A tinkle,  smooth and rhythmic breaks into my thoughts. A brightly painted elephant, swathed in multicoloured malmal glides past. Four thin young boys swing back and forth on the seat in a game of dare known only to mahout boys. The elephant continues, its matronly gait unperturbed by these antics. The day may be done, but her footsteps know that steady and sure is the only way.

The traffic noise fades into the background. Ghostly cars whiz past soundlessly, as if from a future that has not been built yet. They are grey in the fuzzy halogen that greys even the stars above. No matter, for this is but a dream. I am awakened by the steady clip clop of hooves, horses pulling a chariot. The king of the day has been put to his chamber, his chariot of the day merrily celebrates its freedom. Jingling bells to clopping beats, untold stories waft past. Merging into the gloom, a bright red and white shadow left behind.

I look to the left, smelling the food. InDelhifood is never far away. Each flare either bad news or food. The gas light hisses, the steaming pots lie open casually next to the rhythmic slapping of paranthas on the pan. This is comfort food, the anda (egg) parantha of one’s youth. When time was eternal. Revisiting eternity in a moment of truce with time.

Bitter Toast

The toast was bitter. That is impossible she thought. That just cannot be. It was her mind again. But that was nonsense. The doctor had said she was absolutely fine. One cannot imagine bitter toast. Its supposed to be what you know, you remember and then the mind jumbles it up.

Ya, right. Remember the purple elephant? One cannot hear the word purple elephant without imagining one. She smiled. There she was, arguing with herself again. No, these were not voices in her head. She was not crazy (and what was crazy about a subconscious or whatever they called it these days). This was merely thinking an idea through before articulating it. Simple. Anyway, the purple elephant analogy was wrong – the image comes from the words. The words have to stimulate the idea. There was nothing to stimulate the idea of bitter toast.

She looked around her. The glass windows were streaked. The room pristine. He own little room. Not quite the cocoon she had imagined. Over the years it had become the panic room of the house. Buttons had been sewn on school uniforms. Last minute safety pins on wedding chunaris. Careers had changed after an afternoon on the rocking chair, she listening and humming her interjections. The room had seen chaos, and then complete cold order.  More order now that her eyes were giving way. She hated feeling her way to find things – they had to be placed just so. She often forgot her failing eyesight, she smiled. It was almost gone, but she was managing fine. But then, how did I see the streaks on the window today? It must be the bitter toast that started it. Something had been started.

The years were as lightly worn as the pashmina shawl she wrapped around her shoulders, whatever the weather. It was one she had bought for herself from a weaver after years of being cheated by door to door salesmen. Year after year she bought dozens of shawls and steadily gifted them away. Some for weddings, others for births. Lately every visitor who came to her house left with a piece of it. Some got a few pieces of her precious crockery, others the ornaments. She had even given away some of her furniture. The only large piece she held on to was the oak dining table that she had bought at an embassy sale and shipped over. This is where she had her tea. And toast. She glared accusingly at the offending item. It made no sense.

Sense is what she had lived her life with – that was her lodestone. She was the dependable one – at work, at home, in her neighbourhood. She made friends easily, and then learnt to carry the weight of their flightiness, inconsistency. One by one they all came, they all passed through her room, ending up at the dining table drinking hot tea and eating the cakes she had baked in the middle of the night. She had solutions for them, she brought comfort. So much sense – look at how sensibly she has arranged her life. She basked in the comfortable warmth of sense. It brought her everything she had ever wanted. Everything she knew she could have wanted, she had.

Unlike this strange new taste that made no sense.

 

(c) meetasengupta

MudraSeni

MudraSeni

She was a dancer. Grace flowed in her every move. Each step that she took was like a sigh, each note of her lilting voice a desire.

She was not well known. A few villages around the King’s city, that is all. She would perform there routinely every year – some villages in the festival season, some after the harvest, and in some as a harbinger of auspicious monsoons. They worshipped her, almost. Her dances brought prosperity to them, they were sure. And joy to all – the women immersed in the music and the spectacle – knowing that their cares will be a little lighter with the dance. The children agog with the splendiferous performance. And the men, with hope in their   eyes, watched till they were satiated.

She was generous with her performances, dancing often till the first light of day. She danced the stories, as she had been taught. And then some more, in ways that could never be taught. The stories became real, as reality never could. There was an art to it, but there was a science too, for she had been taught well.

Years ago, when she was a young girl in her own village far away, they had come. They came as travelers, dressed in shades of black and flame. They had horses, so the villagers knew they were rich and could pay for food. Their camp was set up by river that ran alongside the village. The same river that she would go to each morning. Her uncle and aunt thought that she was going to the river for her bath with the other girls, and knew she would bring back water for the day. But she did not stay with the girls for too long. They would tease her about a secret lover, knowing that she was too young to have one. And she smiled, and slipped away.

Her secret was not difficult to discover, and once the other girls found out, they protected her from the elders. It was harmless, a young girl, twirling and with free abandon on a flat rock by the river, dancing to the rising sun. This is when they saw her, the riders, from their camp by the river. She glowed with the light of the morning, her rhythm flawless to the music that only she heard, or maybe they did too.

She was not motherless, though her father was long gone. He was a traveler too, taking goods from town to town to make a profit. His mother had waited for him for years, waited herself into a silence so profound that it seemed to make her invisible to all. The dancing daughter was looked after by others, with sense, but with as much care as one would give another.

So, when the travelers with the horses came asking for her, there was no one who really objected. They promised a lot for her future, and gave more than their promises. She traveled with them, riding in front of the one with the largest horse. She had no fear in riding far away from all that was known but never had been hers.

The riders had a destination but they seemed to be in no hurry to get there. They would ride for days and nights without tiring and then as if they had received a signal they would be a sense of calm that would float like a cloud around them. The horses would slow down without a command and the riders would let go of the reins. Then, the horses would lead them to a spot where they could camp in safety and comfort. A blanket, the soft grass or sand and some hot food cooked from whatever they could find was comfort enough. She asked no questions and they liked her for it. She looked forward to these stops, the longer the better. Each time they stopped, one rider would beckon to her and she would walk to the edge of the camp. Then, with a stick to draw symbols with, her lessons would begin. The riders spoke of the beginning of the world, of the sun as it rose and the rhythms that even sound could not capture. She listened enraptured. As she listened, she learnt – and each learning was like a dance to her.

She was quick to make herself useful too. She had learnt much from her aunt and could build a fire faster than most. When they went out to hunt for food, she organized the camp in ways that suited them, and when they had cooked the food, the choicest morsels were saved for her. She was quick to observe, and quick to learn. They looked alike at first, but soon she learnt how each of them differed. Some were quicker than others, some had eyes that flashed with anger and some were kinder than others. They did not seem to speak much and in that she was reminded of her mother’s silences. They were there, and not there – just as a low flame is there in the dark of the night. When they spoke, it was a calm cool river that flowed, full of wisdom and light that filled her very being.

They were headed for the hills. An ancient temple with tall pillars but no roofs. She knew what they wanted. They wanted to teach her dance. Not just the dance to the rising sun that was from the village. Not the one that she still danced every morning, sneaking off, observed, just as she did in the village. But the dance of the universe. With its precise rhythms and shapes. She was happy.

The years rode by hard and fast. She met her teacher in the open temple in the hills. She never found out how old she was, never dared to ask. A title was not expected – all called the old lady ‘Zaemun’. She did not know what that meant. The riders left soon and she stayed on with Zaemun. Learning the dances of the past, and building the future with her dance. Zaemun taught her all even though it took years. She learnt till the dance became her and then some more. She could with her twirl call the clouds to her command, and with a flounce send them off. She could, she knew, bring wars to a kingdom, or with another twist of her capable hands change the fate of the powerful. Her dance was a weapon, she danced in the lap of the Gods.

Then they sent her away. To dance in little villages. She danced with a will, waiting for the call. Knowing she brought happiness to simple lives, knowing that she had roles to play in complex ones. She danced her complex moves to mesmerize them. As she twisted her fingers into unfathomable shapes, heaven met earth. Prosperity followed the rhythms of time, and peace followed the rhythms of nature.

She knew it was time. The rising sun told her so. She danced to it again, building protection for the villages that she would leave today.

The riders from the palace were on their way, for the King had heard of the amazing dancer. The festivals were here and the feasts were being prepared. Dancers he had many, another would only add to the grandeur of his court. He was tired of the intrigues and threats and looked forward to the festival. A few days devoted to pleasure, as the harvests ripened in the fields. And unknown to him, conspiracies ripened in the corridors.

She could smell the blood that would be let as she descended from the curtained chariot they had sent for her. As she walked through the cool corridors that led to her apartments the whispers floated past her like black smoke. The contest was not even. The play was not fair. The reasons were all wrong. And she had been bidden.

Even though the King did not know it, he was hers to protect. He had called on her and that was enough, she knew. He could not be expected to understand the rhythms that lie beneath but she had been taught well. She knew what she had to do, with a little twist of her hands. She was the MudraSeni.

Note: Mudras are precise positions of the hands that are supposed to cure diseases and bring other positive or negative changes in the system. Mudras are known as the yoga of the hands and work with key points in the body, recognized in other systems such as acupressure etc.  Mudras an element of Tantric practices too.

There are many more chapters to her story. More keep getting added. One of them is online here: https://aanteladda.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/mudraseni-2/

Shekhar

Dhum-da-dadadadada-da-Dhum!!

With a flourish of his drumsticks, Shekhar looked around the empty room.

It was just the way he liked it.  His clothes were on the chair, ready for when he wanted to wear them again. The box of books was right next his reading chair and his computer had finally come to life. Mum was out – she had a meeting to go to – so he could take as much ice-cream as he wanted.

And yet, in all of this perfection, he waited.