Thursday, August 6, 2015

Sukanya - Chapter Six

Chapter Six  
Power cuts were something that the people of Meerut accepted with equanimity while cussing loudly as they fanned themselves. Bade Papa often wore a banian and cotton pajamas as he taught his students, seating himself by the open door so that he could feel the slightest breeze if it made its way to his house. The students would sweat as they struggled with the various verbs that English Grammar threw at them, hardly able to concentrate for the heat. On one such hot and lightless evening, as dusk started to fall, Sukanya lay on the bed next to Bade Mummy’s. Bade Papa nursed a drink and played his harmonium, singing an Urdu gazal that Sukanya found sweet, though she could not understand it at all. Bade Papa was a bit of a poet, she thought and smiled to herself. It was now almost dark. Badi Mummy must have dozed off, the pain medication possibly providing some relief at last.

‘Kaun hai, kaun hai,’ Bade Papa suddenly shouted. Badi Mummy woke up with a start. Sukanya jumped out of her skin and then jumped out of bed to check on the cause for excitement, switching on the flashlight that lay on the bedstool just for these emergencies.

‘He he, Bade Papa, it’s me,’ said Sushma from under her ghunghat. Sushma was married to Natwar. She had grown up in a village and believed in covering her face and head with the pallu of her sari whenever faced with an elder, ‘I was only touching your feet.’

‘Sushma! What do you want?’ clearly Bade Papa had not taken this display of respect in a good spirit, having spilled a little of his drink.

‘Nothing, Amma Ji said that I should give this to Sukanya bitiya,’ said Sushma.

‘Humph,’ said Bade Papa.

‘Oh, it’s my dress, for Gumbi’s wedding, Bade Papa,’ explained Sukanya and took the package from Sunni, ‘thanks, I will come by tomorrow if I need any alternations.’

Sushma nodded and dived at Bade Papa’s feet again.

‘Jeete raho, khush raho,’ grumbled Bade Papa and moved away, his glass in his hand.

The lights came back on.

‘Arrey, show it to me,’ said Badi Mummy after shouting out a few earfuls at Sushma for startling people in the darkness. Sukanya duly handed over the clothes.

‘Hmmm,’ Badi Mummy critically observed the clothes and stretched them this way and that, ‘chalo, theek hai. Tell Rajni we will try it out and let her know. She has limited talent. She spoils my sari blouses all the time.’

‘She’s ok, Badi Mummy,’ said Sukanya and went off to try the new clothes. They fit well though they were a far cry from the Zara clothes that she normally wore in London. The green suited her, she decided, and maybe Badi Mummy would lend her some jewellery to go with it. She came back downstairs to model her new look and found a distinguished-looking stranger sitting with her grandparents. He was dressed in a white shirt and white pants. This was the second time in as many days that she was seeing a man clad in all white. His hair was graying at the temples. He looked grave and amiable all at once, the wrinkles around his eyes lit up by an infectious smile. Charming, that was the word.

‘Arrey, come in, come in,’ he rose as he saw her, his broad smile widening, its warm embrace enveloping her, ‘bhai wah, I expected Shilajit’s daughter to be a half Angrez but Sukanya looks as desi as kulhad ki chai, haan, bhabhi ji?’

Sukanya folded her hands in a stiff Namaste, aware that already his approval was important.
‘Sukanya, this is Dinanath Shukla ji. He is the principal of the college where Bade Papa and Sugandha teach. We go back a very long way, beta.’

‘Long way, indeed,’ said Shukla ji with a laugh, ‘forty years, maybe more. I saw your father as a baby. You look a lot like him. The same brooding, serious look.’

‘I am not serious,’ said Sukanya, a trifle more petulantly than she had intended, ‘and this is a dress that I need to wear for a wedding.’

Sunita Chachi burst in with a tray of teacups, a sugarbowl with real sugar cubes, Sukanya noted with surprise, and even a small milk jug. Usually tea was made by boiling water, then adding tea-leaves and sugar and boiling it a little more and finally adding milk and boiling the whole thing till it all the flavours were as far from delicate as was possible. Sukanya had grown used to this masala latte chai as she called it to herself but it was a far cry from the delicate Darjeeling that her mother used to brew at home.

‘Principal sahab, I got some tea,’ said Sunita. She was simpering, Sukanya noticed with a mix of surprise and disgust, ‘I thought, Badi Mummy would want to serve you something nice and this little Sukanya can barely boil an egg, haha.’

Principal Sahab took the cup of tea that was being offered and laughed heartily.

‘This Sunita understands my weakness for her special chai,’ he said, ‘have you had the opportunity to eat her cooking, Sukanya? She is Devi Annapoorna reincarnated.’

Sunita Chachi blossomed under all this attention. Sukanya helped to prop up Badi Mummy with extra pillows and handed her a cup of tea. Sunita offered Principal Sahab some homemade naankhatai, which he accepted with a smile. Sukanya took her own tea and sat down on Badi Mummy’s bed and took another good look at this new arrival. He was quite tall and well-built, possibly an athlete in younger days, an ex-jock whose hours of physical endurance were paying off in his twilight years. He was light of skin, very much so and beneath his thin, rimless glasses, his eyes were a light shade of brown not commonly seen in India. His left cheek dimpled as he smiled and possibly to display that attractive feature, he smiled a lot. Sukanya found herself assessing him, something she did only when instantly mistrusted people. He was like a player on stage, possibly playing the lead romantic part and women of all ages succumbed to his overt charms, much like Sunita Chachi was doing now.

‘Prinicipal Sahab taught me English Literature in college,’ she now addressed Sukanya, ‘and I still think of his class on Lord Byron. One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace…..’

'Which waves in every raven tress, Or softly lightens o'er her face,’ completed Principal Sahab. Badi 
Mummy smiled in appreciation.

Natwar Chacha burst in, carrying a large brown bag in his hands and deposited it with Bade Papa.
‘Aha, here comes Natwar,’ Bade Papa said with a broad grin, ‘I sent instructions to Lachho that the samosas had better remain hot. Also kalakand!’ Sukanya prepared for yet another deep-fried feast right before dinner.

‘Since when have you started thinking of me as a guest, Professor Sahab,’ asked Principal Shukla with another belly laugh. Sunita Chachi took the food and went inside to serve it. Sukanya followed her.

‘So Shukla Uncle was your teacher, yes, Chachi,’ she prodded as Sunita Chachi opened the various packets of khatti and meethi chutneys that the good halwai had packed with the samosas.

‘Oh yes, the best years of my life. I was the cultural secretary of the college, gudiya, and he used to take a lot of interest in the activities that we did. He knows so much about poetry and theatre and literature. I quite thought he was like Lord Byron himself. All the girls had such massive crushes on him.’

‘And some haven’t got over them yet,’ said Sukanya with a smile, thinking that Sunita Chachi’s Byron-centric fantasies must remain unfulfilled, married as she was to a plump, laddu-loving bhondu who often wore white socks under his black office shoes, ‘so is Byron married?’

‘Ha ha ha, of course, to a complete dehati, I have heard though I have never seen seen her. I believe his father had fixed the match when Principal Sahab was barely in his teens and there was no way he could get out of it. Well, it was a fruitful marriage for sure. Six children, three girls and three boys. Help me with this tray, will you?’

Bade Papa and Principal Shukla were up till late that night, discussing many things. After Badi Mummy took some medicines and the pain became bearable, she lay down, leaving the men to talk. Sukanya took an Agatha Christie from Bade Papa’s collection and retired to her room but could not focus on the murder mystery beyond the first five pages, an unlikely event given that she was a third generation Poirot aficionado. She found herself dwelling on Byron as she had christened Principal Shukla. He sure behaved like a filmstar, used to adulation and chosing to grace his followers with attention when he felt like it. Perhaps she was able to take an outsider’s view on it, everyone else seemed to have an intense liking for him. Or maybe despite the difference in age, the people here were simpler. In the first eighteen years of her life, she had probably seen more of life, met more people, many of them ridiculously mean and contemptible. Complete assholes, as her peer group labeled them.  

Well, at least she had a nice dress to wear for the wedding.

She had just drifted off to sleep when loud voices from downstairs woke her up. She switched on the light and ran to see what had happened.

Bade Papa was holding down Badi Mummy, who seemed to be in complete agony. Her body was twisting in pain. Her eyes were closed but she was whimpering, clutching at her stomach.

‘What happened, Bade Papa? ’ asked Sukanya, panic rising in her throat.

‘Call Anju, knock at her door. Call Natwar,’ shouted Bade Papa and Sukanya ran to obey. She unlocked the door and rushed outside. Anju’s door was only a few steps away but Sukanya knew that inside the simple, wooden door, the house was labyrinthine. There was a shed where two cows were tied and many small rooms, in which Anju Mausi must sleep. Would she even hear her?

Sukanya knocked at the door, shouting at the top of her voice. Anju Mausi only took two minutes in opening the door and she was carrying her emergency medical kit when she did. Her eyes were alert, despite being woken up from deep sleep. Natwar Chacha had already stepped inside the house to check what was happening and had then taken Puru’s moped to fetch the doctor. Sukanya made her way back to the house, her heart sinking, and a sickening feeling that there was no ground beneath her feet.

Badi Mummy was thrashing about and was deliriously invoking Sukanya’s father, her son.
‘Shila, did you leave the achaar jar open again. Fine, don’t listen to me. You will have nothing to eat with your mathris soon. Arrey, look. He stood first in his class again. You wait and watch, ji, Shila will become an IAS officer and then he will come to pick me up in a jeep. A jeep with a flag. Haan, and then I will go and stay in his kothi. He will have two children – a boy and a girl. We will call the girl Sukanya, no?’

Bade Papa, tears streaming down his face was trying to hold her back but his wife seemed to be getting more and more out of control. Mercifully, the moped carrying Natwar Chacha and a doctor in a patterned sleep-suit came into the gulley. Sukanya realized that her own cheeks were wet and made her way out of the house and sat down heavily on the steps outside. Sunita Chachi made her way towards her in a patterned nightie, a dupatta draped modestly over the loose garment.

‘Arrey, don’t cry, lalli,’ she said affectionately, placing a warm hand on Sukanya’s shoulder, ‘your dadi will be alright. The doctor has come now.’ A few other people were looking outside their doors and asking each other what had happened. Sukanya suddenly felt very young. What was she doing here in this strange country, so far away from her parents? They were supposed to manage these adult things, not her. She felt angry with them for letting her go so far away from them, conveniently forgetting that it had been her decision.

‘Here, come inside, gudiya,’ said Sunita and pulled Sukanya to her feet, ‘you need some tea. Your face has gone all pale.’

Sukanya stepped inside Sunita’s house, right across the narrow alley, vaguely realizing that this was the first time that she was letting herself inside, having so far passed Badi Mummy’s messages from the door. Technically there was only four feet between the two doorsteps. The room that she sat in was tiny and crowded with furniture. There was a diwan, a wooden settee with hand-embroidered cushions on it. There was the ubiquitous sofa set, something that Sunita must have got as part of her dowry. Handmade paintings lined the whitewashed walls as did a calendar that exhorted the reader to Visit! HongKong! There was a niche in the wall that had been later made into a showcase. For some reason, it was stuffed with soft, plush toys, their glassy eyes staring vacantly at visitors.

Sunita went inside to get some tea and Sukanya held her head in her hands, defiantly thinking of her father’s belief that this was a sign of despondency. She ought to see if Bade Papa needed any help instead of crumbling like this. Sunita came inside with the tea, this time in a regular kind of teacup.  Sukanya did not want it but after a few sips realized that she needed it. After spending a few minutes with Sunita, she walked back to the house. The doctor was talking to Bade Papa, who seemed to have aged a few years in the last hour or so. Anju was standing with him. Natwar was hanging in the background, fiddling with the blanket that covered Badi Mummy who was finally sleeping. The doctor left with Natwar, asking them to call in case his patient took another turn for the worse.
Anju sat with Sukanya on the bed next to Badi Mummy’s. Bade Papa sat on his armchair just outside the room, keeping the door open in case there were more visitors.

‘I am so glad you are here, Anju Mausi,’ said Sukanya quietly, looking at her grandmother’s restful, pale face. Anju smiled.

‘I will be here for as long as you need me to be, beta, I just need to go check on my son once in a while, though my mother is there with him,’ she said.

‘Your son?’ repeated Sukanya in surprise, ‘I did not know you were married, Mausi.’

Anju stared at her for a moment, then turned her face away.

‘Nobody’s told you my story,’ she observed with a wry laugh, ‘I am surprised. I would have imagined that such a scandalous story would be the first to be disseminated. Issmein sab kuch hai – an unwed mother, a kinky husband, a runaway wife, an adopted child. What do I say? Your grandparents were the only ones to support me when I needed it the most.’

Sukanya kept quiet and watched Anju’s profile, calm even after she had spoken of her strange life-story to a relative stranger. Her grandparents had never spoken to her of Anju’s unusual choices, always maintaining a steady affection for her. How could they then not forgive their only son for what was just a minor digression of inter-caste marriage? This called for deep thinking. Perhaps the situation needed a fresh approach. One thing was certain – after tonight’s health scare, there was not too much time left in which bonds could be mended.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Sukanya - Chapter Five

Meherbaanz and kadardaanz, chapter five of Sukanya for your reading pleasure. Read, share and enjoy. All I ask for in return is good karma and a cup of tea.
For those seeing this for the first time, I am giving away my novel Sukanya for free, two chapters every week, Wednesdays and Saturdays. To read earlier chapters, please click on this hashtag.
Chapter five
Bade Papa gave private tuition to the absolute duds in his class. If Sukanya was home at the time, she heard Bade Papa get increasingly frustrated as he tried to drill the rules of English Grammar and the beauty of Shakespeare into their dull, dead brains. Often the cup of wrath overflowed at a fat, dirty-looking boy.
‘Arrey, Mohan Lal, what is a past participle?’ she once heard him ask of the boy.
Silence reigned supreme in the tiny room.
‘What is it, you piece of lard,’ screamed Bade Papa, ‘I made you write it out a hundred times last week.’
Mohan Lal continued to stare vacantly.
‘Bark it out, you moron, bark it out,’ Bade Papa was really gathering steam now.
‘Bow wow,’ said Mohan Lal obediently. The boys burst into laughter and Bade Papa’s curses rang loud and true for the next ten minutes as he rued the day he had agreed to make a scholar out of the dairy owner’s son.
Although Sukanya too smiled, she did not like the boys too much. Not having seen too many girls in their lives, definitely not ones that wore jeans and spoke with half an accent, they were all quite enamoured by her and stared lustily whenever she walked by.
Sukanya was leafing through one of the old Reader’s Digests that Bade Papa seemed to collect. The magazine was dated 1972 and had probably taken a couple of baths in its life, so yellow and hardened were the pages.
A loud crash rang out, followed by some heartfelt cursing. She stepped out to the balcony and looked down at the gulley. An elderly man was lying in the drain outside their house, his once kurta pajama now covered in slush. Bade Papa had stepped out and was helping him get up.
‘What happened, Hazari Babu, have you had too much today?’ asked Bade Papa. Rajni Mausi and Natwar Chacha had come out to watch the fun.
‘Ha ha ha,’ said Hazari Babu, ‘you know there is nothing called too much booze. Anyway, have your morons gone yet? I thought I would sing you the new ghazal that I have composed. Bring out your baaja...’
The rest of the conversation faded out as Hazari Babu made his way into the house. Sukanya grinned and looked up to find Sunita standing on her own balcony a few feet away, ostensibly putting clothes out to dry and not merely recording happenings to serve as ready gossip.
‘Who is that, Chachi,’ Sukanya asked.
‘Hazari Babu, Bade Papa’s closest friend,’ said Sunita Chachi with a sigh, ‘waise to, he teaches in the same college too but he has been known to send his students out to buy him a bottle every now and then. People say he is a brilliant poet and when he was young, his poetry was published in magazines. Then his wife died and since then he has excelled at only one thing – drinking. He wakes up in the morning and washes his mouth with alcohol and spends his evenings pretending to be a sha’ir and drinking some more. Ram Ram!’ Sunita Chachi invoked her Lord’s blessings after having gossiped freely and went back inside.
Sukanya decided to go downstairs and make acquaintance with Hazari Babu at once, although she was now beginning to find these interactions quite predictable. First there would be loud gasping at how much like Shilajit she looked, then the misty-eyed recollections of her father, then some childhood story or the other and then finally some money would be shoved into her hand and she was not to argue and accept it and buy some mithai with it.
I could open a halwai shop with all this mithai money, she had told Sam, making him snigger.
Hazari Babu was no different. The students had all been shunted out when Sukanya made her way downstairs and now Bade Papa has brought out his harmonium and whiskey. Hazari Babu took one look at Sukanya and sighed deeply, lying back in his chair.
‘Namaste, Uncle,’ offered Sukanya, uncertain about whether to dive at his feet or not. Hazari Babu seemed overcome by emotion, reaching out to hold her hand.
‘Daddy talks about you all the time,’ she attempted again, holding his thin, bony hands in hers.
‘Ab aa gaye hain aap to aata nahin hai yaad, varna kucch hum ko aap se kehna zaroor tha’ said Hazari Babu, stifling something that could have been a sob or a chuckle.
He was certainly very striking looking, his now-dirty kurta pajama notwithstanding. He was not very tall, and spare, his silver hair just slightly too long. His lips sported deep stains of paan and he smelt of cigarette smoke and alcohol, though one couldn’t have told by how articulate he sounded. A life well-lived and heartbreaks not forgotten.
‘Uh, yes, of course,’ Sukanya attempted, her Urdu about as good as her German, which is to say, practically non-existent.
‘Why don’t you go over to Bibi’s?’ suggested Badi Mummy from her sick-bed, her disapproval of this impromptu bazm evident in her voice. Sukanya cheered up at the thought of returning to Bibi's chowk.
Munto Baba seemed to be in no hurry to return to Benaras or the other religious towns where he stayed and practiced his sadhuhood, preferring to stay put in Bibi’s chowk. Bibi did not mind at all. He did not call her dadi, hardly acknowledged her in fact but eagerly ate the food that she brought him twice a day. He did not need much else. A small gathering of women would collect every morning, clamouring to ask Munto Baba about missing jewelry, errant husbands, improbable wishlists. Sometimes he would ignore them, not opening his eyes at all while they stared at him till finally, tired and frustrated they made their way back home. At other times, he would answer a few questions, in his own strange, abstruse way. Sukanya steered clear of him after the dead girl prophecy.
Bibi was only too glad to feed Sukanya lunch. After lunch she lay down on one of the two high, wooden beds that lay in Bibi’s small house and looked at the posters of Bibi’s various gods, vaguely wondering if they could be expensive Raja Ravi Verma prints and listened to Bibi ramble on about the old days. Soon she found her eyelids drooping.
‘Wake up, Sukanya,’ she heard a familiar drawl, pulling her out of deep sleep.
‘Guh,’ she mumbled and struggled to get up, ‘what time is it?’
‘It’s almost evening,’ said Sam as he settled comfortably at the foot of her bed.
‘Where is Bibi? Don’t sit there. If Nandi Chachi sees you in here with me, she will get up to no good,’ said Sukanya worriedly.
‘Oh, you worry too much,’ he said but got up, ‘everyone’s gone to the jaagran at the temple. I want a smoke. Come with me.’
‘My mother does not like the idea of my hanging out with you,’ said Sukanya as she got up and started to fold the woven cotton khes that Bibi must have covered her with before leaving for the jaagran, ‘I think she has some misgivings about Sugandha Aunty. I have a feeling it’s to do with my father’s endless crush on her.’
‘Everyone has a crush on my aunt. It sort of runs in our family, this animal magnetism. Now come to the terrace of the mehel now and we can watch the going-ons of the jaagran from there.’ Sukanya followed him to the mehel, crossing the now empty chowk and through the small alley that led to the large gate, the crumbling old building impassive and elegant even in its ruin.
'Is your aunt at home,' asked Sukanya, always shy in the presence of the splendid Sugandha.
'No, she is out with Byron,' replied Sam, leading the way into the house and then up the stairs.'He's her, how do we say this...boyfriend doesn't quite cut it when you are talking of silver-haired romance somehow.'
'I don't know him,' said Sukanya. There was no end to people in this place.
'You will meet him soon enough. Byron gets around,' said Sam. 'Be careful when you do. He's quite an old hand at impressing young things'
‘I hope you are not developing romantic notions about me, Sam,’ she said comfortably, as he handed out a cigarette, ‘because you know, my benchmark stands fairly high, even by London standards and you are after all, only a local boy, notwithstanding your sorry connection with royalty.’
‘Don’t worry. You could not be further from my type if you tried,’ he said, lighting his cigarette.
‘Ah, you know how to break a girl’s heart,’ she said. The terrace of the mehel was higher than any other she had been on in the mohalla. The wind was quite strong here. Many, many terraces spread out as far as the eye could see, most of them cheek by jowl. It would be so easy to jump over another’s terrace, she thought. Dusk was now falling and the lights of temple where the jaagran was being held shone brightly. Both of them stayed quiet, leaning against the sun-warmed wall and listened to the sounds of aarti as it floated out.
It was almost completely dark when Sam suddenly grabbed her arm. She was about to sigh and tell him off when she realized that he had placed her finger on his lips. She followed his glance and saw two dark figures on the adjoining terrace. She held her breath as the two gravitated towards each other and then melted together. The wind blew from them to Sam and Sukanya, carrying their words with an uncanny clarity. Sukanya could hear her heart pounding. She did not have to strain what they were saying.
‘Why didn’t you say anything?’
‘What could I say? What could anyone do?’
‘I could have asked your mausi. She would have agreed.’
‘Never. You know that. It is not just a question of caste, Paru. Mausi had borrowed money from them. She is indebted to them. I could not refuse her. She has brought me up. She is like my mother.’
‘Your mother would ask you who you wanted to marry, Gumbi. She would not tie you up and throw you into a well like this.’
‘So what am I supposed to do?’
‘We will need to run away.’
‘Yes, that is the only option we have. Let me put some money together before next month.’
‘I…I need some time to think.’
‘Don’t you love me?’
‘I do. You know that. This is too sudden, too dangerous. They will find out.’
‘Nothing will happen. Leave it all to me. Now go. Some people are coming back from the jaagran now.’
Suddenly the loudspeakers installed in the temple came to life and the gentle sounds of the aarti gave way to distorted Hindi film songs remixed to praise the lord. The two figures made their way down the stairs. Sukanya’s heartbeat slowly started to return to normal. She slid down heavily to the floor, the half-smoked cigarette still in her hand.
‘Phew, they almost saw us,’ said Sam, looking quite calm, though his hands were shaking.
‘I met Paru Chacha just the other day. No wonder he looked so stricken at the thought of Gumbi’s wedding. He wants to be the dulha in it,’ she remembered.
‘There will be some fun now,’ said Sam, the glee coming through in his voice, ‘maybe we should leave an anonymous note for Gumbi’s mausi, telling her the bird is about to fly the coop.’
‘Adequately wicked,’ said Sukanya.
‘I would have done it too but I never liked the hag,’ Sam stubbed out his cigarette, ‘now I want to see her expression when she finds out that Gumbi has run away.’
‘Shouldn’t we tell someone? It can’t be safe for them to run away from home.’
‘Are you mad? Of course not. It’s not our story to tell. Just stay quiet and see what happens. Let's go now. I have a book to hit.’
The two made their way down the stairs. Sam went to his room and Sukanya said she would let herself out. She lingered in the formal drawing room for a moment. She liked this room. It was grand but that was not all. It was almost as if it held untold secrets from the bygone years, secrets that spoke of intrigue and grandeur. There was probably nothing to her fantasies, she told herself as she fingered an ornate elephant figurine on the mantelpiece, perhaps people had been completely normal here, inordinately wealthy but normal enough to not have murders and coups within the walls of the house.
The main door opened and shut again, startling Sukanya a little. It must be Sam’s aunt, Sugandha Rani returning from wherever she had been all this while. Sukanya hung about in the drawing room, suddenly reluctant to face the Rani. She might not like Sukanya’s visits to meet Sam. What was happening to her, she told herself off in exasperation, she was becoming one of the local girls, always on the lookout for easy romance but petrified of the sanctions that were sure to follow. She fidgeted for a few moments and then started on her way out when the sounds of a sitar broke the silence of the mehel. A clear, sweet voice started to sing. Sukanya stood there, mesmerized. Rani Sugandha could sing like a bird.
‘Of course she can,’ said Badi Mummy, when Sukanya recounted her surprising discovery later than night as her grandmother shelled peanuts and fed the ovals to her. Bade Papa was away, tending to Hazari Babu who had overdone things a bit and had to be carried home with Natwar Chacha’s help. ‘She has sung on stage too though not very often. Your Bade Papa says she is a talented poet too. That is how she met that man...khair..let it be. She deserved better than to be stuck in that dead mansion but you know, we do not chose our destiny.’
‘That is what Dad says,’ said Sukanya before she could stop herself but Badi Mummy did not flinch. Neither she did retire in a shell as she always did when Shilajit’s name was brought up. She only smiled. ‘He does, does he?’ she said and smiled and went on shelling peanuts.
Sukanya contemplated telling her about the conversation that Sam and she had inadvertently overheard. Badi Mummy seemed reasonably soft and pliable at the moment. Then she held herself back. Sam was right. They were observers; they had to see the play unfold. There was no need to jump in and make things difficult for Gumbi, parentless and unhappy from birth and Puru Chacha, clutching at love in an unlikely setting. Also, why impede the wave of excitement and gossip that was bound to flow once Gumbi’s would-be dulha was ditched at the altar.
Sukanya listened to the fan whirr as she lay in bed that night, thinking of her strange life, spent so far away from these people that were her family and how distant she was to them, even here in their midst, possibly an observer at best.
Copyright Parul Sharma 2015. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any form, in whole or in part, may be made without the written permission of Parul Sharma.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Sukanya - Chapter four

Okay, chapter four as promised. Feel free to share but do use the NEW! BETTER! hashtag.
For those seeing this for the first time, I am giving away my novel Sukanya for free, two chapters every week, Wednesdays and Saturdays. To read earlier chapters, click on this hashtag.
Chapter Four
Later, much later, when Sukanya would think of the events that transpired that long summer, this day stood out over all others. This was the day Munto Baba came to roost in Bibi’s chowk.
It started normally enough, with Sukanya calling her mother to update her about the proceedings of the mohalla, as always from her room, far from grand-parental earshot.
‘Mom, I went into the palace, the one whose windows open down to Bibi’s chowk,’ said Sukanya, barely able to believe it herself.
‘Oh yes, but it’s completely run-down, isn’t it? Your father had told me it’s crumbling and parts have already gone to ruin,’ said Aparajita, a little note of worry creeping into her voice. What if some hundred year old pillar gave way right when….oh, this was too much to think about.
‘Yes, but like Bade Papa would say, lut jaane par bhi Dilli Dilli hai,’ she said, making her mother laugh reluctantly.
‘It’s good to see your grandfather bringing out the poet in you,’ she said. ‘And have you met the famous Sugandha ji? Your father has never stopped talking about her, all these years.’
‘I sure have and she makes me feel like I should seriously think about wearing saris. She’s terribly graceful, all low, husky voice and not a hair out of place. And her nephew and I have become friends,’ Sukanya took a sip of her tea. ‘Sam.’
‘I hope he is a decent boy,’ Aparajita sounded worried again. ‘I haven’t heard very good things about….oh, anyway.’
‘He’s fine, Ma. Humility is not his strong point but we get along. And I need some friends. Oh and I am going to a wedding soon. Gumbi is getting married.’
‘Who on earth is Gumbi now?’ Aparajita sounded affronted that her ingrate of a daughter seemed so at home with people who had refused to even acknowledge her Thakur mother all these years. The pull of family, Shilajit had sighed.
‘One of Bibi’s innumerable neighbours. Honestly, Ma, there are more people in this mohalla than the whole of London, I feel.’
‘It certainly sounds eventful. And do you have something to wear for this Gumbi’s wedding?’
‘I am supposed to go to Rajni Mausi’s place today. Badi Mummy has saddled me with bright green silk fabric for making a salwar kameez. I have been told plenty of golden gota is a must. Must say, Ma, Rajni Mausi reminds me of Nirupa Roy, all that endless stitching of sari blouses. She is just so miserable. How did someone like Bibi produce Rajni Mausi?’
Sukanya made her way downstairs after speaking to her mother and wandered into Badi Mummy’s room, who had been depressed at the thought of not being able to make it to a wedding right there in their own mohalla and was now lying down with her face to the wall.
‘Who is Gumbi getting married to?’ asked Sukanya, amused at how she was expected to attend Gumbi’s wedding when she had never once met her.
‘Some shopkeeper,’ replied Badi Mummy without turning back, ‘I guess we cannot complain. No dowry to speak of naturally and then no parents either. But still, Gumbi is a very pretty girl and she means well and I guess she could have done better. Go now and give the dress material to Rajni. And remember, Rajni is my sister but she has no sense of what looks good. Ask her not to scrimp on the gota. We need gota. Lots of it.’
‘I’d like it if the gota were not very thick, Rajni Mausi,’ said Sukanya worriedly as she sat next to her in the small space outside her house where her grand-aunt sat through the day with her sewing machine, churning out kurtas and sari blouses till daylight finally gave way and she could not see the tiny buttonholes that her deft fingers created.
‘Come inside, gudiya,’ intoned Rajni Mausi and led the way inside. Rajni’s house was very ill-kempt, noticed Sukanya, unlike the other houses that she had seen in the mohalla thus far. The frustrations of poverty were everywhere. No wonder Rajni Mausi always looked so glum. Badi Mummy was Rajni Mausi’s older sister but while she was still holding on to the last remnants of beauty in the face of rapidly failing health, Rajni Mausi looked broken and spent and thoroughly wretched, not quite surprising considering her three sons had turned out to be completely worthless.
The oldest, Natwar Chacha was of course known far and wide for his violent temper. Apparently he often made money off his aggressive nature, acting like a hired goonda when the need arose. So far he had evaded the law but there was no doubt that that is where his end lay. He was fiercely loyal to Bade Papa who had treated him like a wayward son all these years, slapping him frequently during his decidedly delinquent teenage and accepting his ways and giving up on them in adulthood. After his beloved cousin Shilajit’s departure, Natwar assumed many of the responsibilities that a son was expected to shoulder but after he beat up a post-office employee over a delayed money-order, Bade Papa withdrew any expectations that he may have had of Natwar, preferring to go about his work in his own slow but gentle manner.
Munto, the second-born had followed the older brother’s footsteps in proving the Indian education system completely ineffectual. After he failed to clear class eight thrice, Rajni Mausi traded the last of her gold ornaments for a buffalo. Munto showed no inclination for the dairy business and ran away soon after, claiming to have renounced the world.
The youngest son was watching something on an old television set in the room where Rajni Mausi now took Sukanya. Named Paresh at birth, he now responded to the infinitely more homely handle of Paru. Paru was not the academic disaster that his two older brothers were, going as far as college and earning a degree, albeit in the third division. He belonged to the school of thought that encouraged using one’s passion to carve out a career. Using his fondness of Hindi films to his advantage, he now worked as an assistant in a local DVD rental library, passing out free advice and recommendations about films. He was not bad to look at either, having a pleasant, affable air around him and a grin that was difficult not to like.
‘Arrey, Sukanya, getting clothes stitched, hain,’ he asked as she came in, ‘it is early for Nauchandi, nahin?’
‘Not Nauchandi, Paru Chacha,’ Sukanya replied as she started to go through the box of gota samples that Rajni Mausi had placed in her lap, ‘ I am going for Gumbi’s wedding next month. The wedding invites are not here yet but Badi Mummy says I must attend. Will you also come?’
There was no reply from Paru. Sukanya looked up. He looked a little pale, she thought, his eyes frozen on the television screen in front of him.
‘I think this one should do, Mausi?’ said Sukanya, picking out a sample and handing it to Rajni.
‘You can pick up the dress next week, rani,’ said Rajni Mausi, dolefully. Sukanya nodded and got up to leave. Paru too got up and left the room without a word. Sukanya wisely declined the offer of tea, the smell of the cooking cabbage an active deterrent. She now decided that she needed cheering up and made her way to Bibi’s house, only to be met with much excitement about the latest, semi-clad visitor to Bibi's chowk.
A sadhu had camped in the chowk. A large group of women sat surrounding him and the crowd kept swelling. The sadhu’s eyes were closed and he seemed to be meditating, in perfect sync with universal consciousness. He wasn’t wearing much, a saffron dhoti and nothing else, long, matted hair which hadn’t met a comb in many years and the inevitable rudraksh beads providing the accessories. Already the beginnings of a celebration seemed to be in the air, as women placed fruit, flowers and incense before the sadhu and whispers of the many miracles of Babaji were rampant. Sukanya stared at this spectacle for sometime and then went inside.
Bibi was cooking khichdi.
‘Munto has come, no, I am making this for him,’ she explained as if Sukanya was expected to know all about him.
‘Munto? That would be Badi Mummy’s nephew, Rajni Mausi’s son, the one who became…..oh my God, so the sadhu outside is Munto Chacha.’
‘What is he doing here? Why has he come back?’
‘I don’t know. What I do know is that he likes khichdi and so I am going to feed him that.’
‘But Bibi,’ floundered Sukanya, ‘isn’t that strange? He is not your grandson anymore, is he? He has renounced the world.’
‘Bullshit,’ said Bibi calmly, ‘and if I know him, he can renounce everything but not his Nani’s khichdi. Just like you and chaat, my girl.’
‘Listen, I think I will have some of that khichdi as well,’ Sukanya laughed. ‘Do you think Munto Baba will mind?’
‘That little fraud is lucky I am still cooking for him,’ Bibi was a realist. Her daughter Rajni though was a different story. She landed at the chowk in the next half hour and immediately dived at the sadhu’s feet. If Munto was surprised, he didn’t let it on, maintaining the distant demeanour.
‘Munto Baba, Munto Baba,’ said Rajni Mausi, ecstatic.
‘Nonsense, he is just high on hashish or something,’ said Bibi, stepping out with a plate of khichdi just as she saw Rajni prepare to take permanent residence at the sadhu’s feet, ‘and I thought you had to be true to one guru. Are you certain Mangadh Waale Baba ji will not mind this desertion?’
‘Rehne do, Bibi, let it be. Munto was my son but now he is only Munto Baba.’
‘Humph,’ said Bibi and extended the plate to Munto Baba, ‘here, Munto, eat.’
Munto Baba opened his eyes, his nostrils flaring at the familiar aroma of his beloved khichdi. Sukanya also came out, with her own plate of food in hand, biting into a luscious piece of mango pickle.
‘Ai hai, is she eating the same food as Baba ji,’ asked Rajni Mausi, scandalized, ‘what ghor paap! What kalyug! Eating the same food as what we serve to the sadhus.’
‘Sukanya will eat the same khichdi,’ said Bibi, ‘if Munto Baba has a problem with it, well, it’s not too late, I can take it right back.’
‘Nahin, nahin,’ said Munto Baba, clearly terrified that the khichdi will be taken away, ‘let the bachchi eat, Baba does not mind. We are all Shiv Ji’s children.’
Bibi snorted and went back into the house. Rajni Mausi stared at Munto Baba with adoration. Munto Baba and Sukanya, both being Shiv Ji’s children polished off the whole khichdi between themselves. After eating, Baba decided to smoke up.
‘Alakh niranjan,’ he proclaimed and lit up a chillum. The smoke started to waft all over the chowk. He shooed Rajni Mausi, his own mother away. Rajni Mausi and the other women wandered off obediently.
‘Arrey, if I put sugar instead of namak in the subzi today, don’t blame me. It will all be Baba ji’s kripa. Bloody Munto,’ said Bibi to Nandi, as the smoke made its way to her kitchen. Sukanya sat in the chowk, the smoke seemed to be drugging her too.
‘My child, we have shared food today. If there is anything you want to ask, ask and it shall be answered,’ said Baba generously, his eyes a peculiar shade of red.
Sukanya shook her head, her head swimming a little. The air smelt like the nightclubs in London, yet it was far more potent.
‘I don’t want to ask anything,’ she said.
‘Aise kaise, you are young. You must have worries, some concerns, whether big or small we do not know but enough to make you anxious, ha ha ha,’ laughed Munto Baba, his voice seemingly drifting to her from far, far away.
‘I am worried about my grandparents,’ said Sukanya, almost against her wishes. Was Munto Baba a hypnotist too? She felt a little drunk. The sun was now high up in the sky, beating down on the chowk, making everything appear unnaturally clear. Any moment now there would be strains of Purple Haze ringing through the air, she thought stupidly.
‘Everyone is worried, mere bachche, everyone. Everyone except us saadhus, who have gone into the sharan of Shiv Ji. Why are your grandparents worried? Have you done something to worry them? Ha ha ha,’ Munto Baba took another drag and went very quiet, preparing to lie down on his side on the brick floor.
‘I just want to know if everything will be alright,’ she finally stuttered. Munto Baba reached out and grabbed his niece’s wrist. He closed his eyes.
‘I see a dead girl in your future,’ he said, snuffed out the chillum and then started snoring. He had fallen asleep! Just like that. Sukanya felt her flesh crawl. The little hairs on her arm stood on end. She stared at the sleeping baba for some time, her mouth slightly agape.
‘Bibi,’ Sukanya went inside after sometime and tried to clear her head by talking to the ever-pragmatic Bibi, ‘do you think Munto Baba has ESP?’
‘STD is more like it,’ said Bibi, ‘why? Did he make any predictions for you? Don’t believe a word, would be my suggestion.’
Sukanya nodded but did not agree. A dead girl?
Copyright Parul Sharma 2015. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any form, in whole or in part, may be made without the written permission of Parul Sharma.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sukanya - Chapter three

Kind people, chapter three of Sukanya for your kind perusal. Silence means you hate it and guarantees my plunge into utter despair. Typos should be pointed out right away and shall be fixed with impressive alacrity. Read, share, enjoy! ‪#‎sukanya‬
Chapter three
A month passed by quickly. Sukanya found herself getting caught in the rhythm of the mohalla life and picking up invisible threads with many, many faces. She would wake up early and help her grandfather prepare tea. Then Anju Mausi, a trained nurse and an ANM in the district hospital would come in for some time and help sponge and change Badi Mummy. In the few days that Sukanya had been there, the colour seemed to have come back in her grandmother’s face. Just an illusion, Bade Papa had dismissed with a sigh.
Sukanya also discovered that her initial impression has been on the spot. People did eat all the time. Breakfast for example could consist of kachauris and aloo-subzi from the nearest halwai shop. Sukanya had blanched when she had first seen the deep-fried kachauris and subzi that looked like a battle between oil and red chillies.
‘Bade Papa,’ Sukanya had fallen into calling him that like everyone else, ‘I don’t think I can eat that.’
‘Ha ha, of course you can. Arrey, your father used to have breakfast at home and then go and have six of these before school with one paav of jalebis and top it with some milk,’ said Bade Papa, ‘anyway, here, you can eat this bread and butter. You must be eating this in London.’
Actually Aparajita was adept at making hot Indian breakfasts almost everyday but Sukanya had learnt very quickly that mentions of her mother caused uncomfortable silences and skirted these whenever she could.
She would bathe and then walk to her great-grandmother’s house. Badi Mummy’s mother was not only alive but flourishing. Bibi lived in one of the houses built around a very large courtyard. This courtyard, or chowk was the hub of activity in the mohalla and Bibi, despite failing eyesight and advancing years keenly participated in the generation and propagation of gossip.
Sukanya spent the better part of the afternoon with Bibi, who lived with her son, Badi Mummy’s only brother. Having lost half a leg in a freak accident years ago, Girdhari had been unemployed since. Now he was a general do-gooder, taking his rickety cycle out every morning and spending his days minding someone’s babies, getting someone else’s rations, and accompanying someone’s old aunt to the hospital. People both needed and ridiculed his services. Now Sukanya heard Nandi, Bibi’s next door neighbour laugh as she saw Girdhari try to limp to deliver a toddler to his mother even as the child urinated freely all over the poor man.
Sukanya complained about this to Bibi.
‘Nandi Chachi laughed at poor Girdhari Mama today,’ she said pensively and bit into a soft guava, the likes of which always sat in a kandi, a cane basket that sat in Bibi’s spotless kitchen.
‘Ignore her,’ said Bibi, uncharacteristically, ‘Nandi is a thoroughly frustrated woman. She was fourteen when she got married and came here, younger than you, bitto. Her mother-in-law, may God boil her in hot oil in hell for all eternity, was a complete tyrant. She was a giant, weighed a hundred kilos or more and she would chase Nandi all over the courtyard with a jhaadu and god help Nandi if she was caught. That monster would sit on her and then pummel her.’
‘Why didn’t her husband stop his mother?’ asked Sukanya, completely horrified.
‘Ha ha, that Atma Ram was a stick figure at seventeen,’ laughed Bibi, ‘his mother held the purse strings, bitiya and that is what makes the world go round, no? He was a complete dud at studies and anyway, this is a Baniya family, they would make their boys go into the family business only. So Atma Ram put up with all this nonsense in his youth and as a prize, now he is selling women’s panties and bras in that shameless shop of his in the bazaar.’
Sukanya could not understand Bibi’s objection to Atma Ram’s hosiery store. It was true that Bibi and most of the gray-haired crones of her generation did not believe in any form of artificial support for their breasts, going so far as to say that wearing a bra gave one breast cancer but surely they knew that the majority of the female population did not share their views. Sukanya often forgot that she had spent only a month with Bibi and quite enjoyed her fearsome temper. She was now ticking off Nandi soundly.
‘Laugh as much as you like at my poor son, Nandi but remember that you will die a dog’s death if I curse you in the morning after taking a bath and before taking a morsel in. I am a Sanatani Brahmin, I have never touched an onion or garlic in my life. Be careful, if you don’t want maggots crawling in your flesh.’ All this was proclaimed quite peacefully as Bibi cooked in her kitchen and Nandi in her own.
Bibi felt quite superior due to the dietary restrictions that had been a part of her life and made her the purest of pure brahmins and she was not above using the fact to her advantage. Nandi paled under this holy attack and offered a peace offering that afternoon itself by sending over a katora full of kadhi.
‘You are a tyrant, Beebs,’ said Sukanya as she licked her plate clean, ‘but this is great, you should threaten Nandi Chachi more often. This is delicious! What are you doing there? Come and eat.’
‘Arrey, that boy has come and fallen ill again, Sugandha’s nephew. I promised her that I would make him this tulsi tea. Now you be a good girl, bitto, go and give this thermos to Sugandha. That Girdhari goes about helping everyone except his own mother.’
Sukanya brightened at this prospect. An entry into the mehel, at last!
On one side of Bibi’s courtyard stood, a mehel, a palace. This had been the most remarkable sight for Sukanya. The palaces that Sukanya had seen had been of two kinds, the kind that British monarchs and noblemen owned, beautiful structures sitting in green grounds. Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, Hampton Court Palace. The other kind had been the royal palaces of India, the glossy pictures of which were spread out on the internet, most of them now luxury hotels. Udaipur Palace, Laxmi Niwas Palace, Deogarh Palace. Opulent reminders of an era whose end had come a long time back.
The mehel next to Bibi’s courtyard was neither of these. It was built as a residence for a very smart businessman about a hundred years ago. Raja Shankar Dev carried the title of king but did not care much for it, focused as he was on the lucre. Then when royalty was abolished in India and public sentiment turned against the excesses of royal families, the sharp Raja had moved his family and businesses to Antwerp. Much money had flowed into his non-royal coffers thanks to the diamond trade and the family had continued to live in style.
His family still owned the mehel and distant relations lived in the palace now and then. One side of the mehel had windows that opened out to Bibi’s courtyard and Bibi had seen a succession of people arrive and camp in the palace before moving out again.
Then Sugandha had shifted in and had stayed put. Nobody really knew how Sugandha was related to Raja Shankar Dev but her crisp, cotton saris, a perpetually covered head, royal features and an indisputable air of arrogance forbade any questions. She taught in the same local college as Bade Papa and had not mingled much with anyone except Bibi in all the years that she had lived in the mehel. She did not receive any guests except the nephew who was studying at the Lala Lajpat Rai Medical College in town and turned up for an occasional holiday. This was the nephew who now needed Bibi’s tulsi tea.
Sukanya took the flask from Bibi and made her way to the mehel through the narrow cobbled alleys that led to it, dreaming a little about jharokhas with intricate lattice-work and perfumed passages. She reached the very large main gate of the palace and found a small door within its huge wooden structure, clearly used for the daily comings and goings. It was ajar. Sukanya looked for a bell or knocker but found none. She stepped inside and found herself standing in the courtyard of the mehel. The floor was marble, with a large floral design in the center. Sukanya looked around. No one was in sight. There were rooms on three sides of the courtyard, possibly for the servants. There was a passage leading to the interiors of the mehel. Sukanya walked through it and into a large, rather opulent room, with plush but rather threadbare carpets lining the floor. Intricately carved furniture lined the room but did not look dusted or cleaned. There was a chandelier hanging from the ceiling but that too didn’t look like it had been used in a while. There were doors leading to other rooms but Sukanya now could not bring herself to go any further. In London, she never even visited Tuktuk, her childhood friend and next-door neighbour without calling ahead.
‘Sugandha Aunty,’ she called and was surprised to find her voice rather emerge rather feebly. The place was deathly quiet and in those unnatural surroundings, one rather expected the ghost of old Raja Shankar Dev, to jump out and clutch her throat. Consequently she jumped out of her skin when she heard a low, ‘hello, how can I help you?’ behind her. She turned back and saw herself facing a young man, tall, bespectacled and with a high forehead. This must be the budding doctor, Sugandha Aunty’s nephew.
‘Hello, I am Sukanya,’ she croaked and then cleared her throat. ‘Uh, Bibi is my great-grandmother. Your aunt had asked for this tea for you.’ She held the flask out. The boy took it and smiled. He had nice teeth. He could have been called handsome but the ravages of medical college seemed to have taken a toll on his face and body.
‘Sit na,’ he said and plopped himself down on one of the carved Louis XVI chairs, ‘where did you get that accent from? Too much ‘Jeeves and Wooster’, hehe.’
Sukanya bristled. Everyone had appreciated her perfect Hindi diction despite her Ing-LAND birth and upbringing. What a rude, dismissive boy.
‘Well, I was born in London so I suppose you could find it in your heart to forgive me,’ she said and turned to go, her nose in the air.
The boy-man laughed loudly.
‘Sensitive, are we? Arrey, come na, sit down. Look, I can’t beg, my throat really hurts,’ he made a piteous face. Sukanya sat down.
‘What’s your name,’ she asked as he opened the flask and used the covering lid as a cup.
‘Well, my parents had rather ambitiously and if I may say so, atrociously named me Samman Singh but everyone calls me Sam. At least they all did at the school I went to and now I rather think I am a Sam, not so much a Samman,’ he said.
‘And which school was that, Sam Singh,’ asked Sukanya, settling down a little bit and realizing very quickly that it was very difficult not to like men like these.
‘Doon,’ he said and watched her face for a reaction.
‘Isn’t that really elite and prestigious? So, who is rich, dad or mum?’ asked Sukanya.
‘Both,’ he said, ‘diamonds.’
‘What luck! So why aren’t you selling bracelets or whatever, instead of slogging it out in med school?’ Sukanya was genuinely surprised.
He sighed.
‘I am a prisoner of my own brains,’ he said, making her laugh. ‘I never went back home after school. I wrote the medical entrance and here I am. Parents are cool with it. As of now, I have my sights firmly set on the Dean’s gold medal.’
Sukanya stared at him. What a smug brat. Then she caught his grin and could not help smiling too.
‘You are so full of yourself and I need to go,’ she said and got up.
‘You would be too if you were this loaded,’ he tapped at his forehead and gulped down the rest of his tea, ‘hey, maybe we should hang out together? How long are you here?’
‘Don’t count on it,’ Sukanya said and picked up her flask.
‘Oho, don’t be so intimidated by my sheer personality. Be a sport! Get rid of that stiff upper lip,’ he followed her outside, still talking.
‘Yeah, we will see,’ she said and started back home.
Copyright Parul Sharma 2015. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any form, in whole or in part, may be made without the written permission of Parul Sharma.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sukanya - Chapter Two

Sukanya - Chapter 2 (Yeah, I listened. I will put up chapters twice a week now - Wednesdays and Saturdays), share, enjoy and do keep the feedback coming because that's the only currency in this sort of interaction. Chapter One here for the ones late to the party. #sukanya 
Chapter Two
‘Namaste, Dada ji,’ she managed before being engulfed in his embrace. She felt him weep for sometime, wondering if she would cry too, in the presence of these strangers that she knew so well. She had struggled with how to think about him, this key character of her own story. Shilajit could not speak of him without tearing and yet, the legends of Bade Papa’s famous rages had permeated through Sukanya’s childhood and beyond. He looked rather frail in person, though, not the sort of terror he had been made out to be. Maybe she would cry a little bit, after all, she thought in sudden panic.
‘Oho, Bade Papa, enough, enough,’ Natwar came to Sukanya’s rescue, tapping her grandfather on the shoulder, ‘she needs to meet everyone.’
Suddenly a conch went off right behind Bade Papa, making him jump and let out a loud curse.
‘Uff, this Sunita,’ he said, moving aside and revealing yet another unfamiliar face. Sukanya took her in, trying to place her from the vast family tree that grew and thrived in her mind. Sunita could not have been more than thirty, she was certainly very pretty and her cheap, printed nylon sari could do little to dim that. Years ago, Shilajit’s classmate from college had visited their London home. His wife had accompanied him on his business trip, awkward in the new trenchcoat that she had worn over her sari, the pallu not quite knowing where to rest. Sunita was a little like that Mausi, thought Sukanya, messy and pretty. As if picking the trail of Sukanya’s memories, Sunita now adjusted her own pallu, covering her head demurely, a contrasting impish grin lighting up her fair face as she handed the conch to a little girl who had surfaced out of nowhere and took a plate full of aarti things from her.
‘Always jumping out of corners and what-nots,’ grumbled Bade Papa, ‘Sukanya, this is your Chachi,’
Sukanya folded her hands again. This was becoming routine, all the endless Namaste’s but they seemed to like it, smiling broadly every time she brought her hands together. I bow to the divine in you. Or just hello, depending on the way you looked at it.
‘Natwar Chacha was talking about you on our way here,’ she said politely.
‘No, no, this is not that Chachi,’ interrupted Natwar hastily, ‘this is another Chachi. You will meet many, many chachis.’ That was not surprising. Sukanya has been taught to think of all men and woman in terms of Chacha’s and Tai’s.
‘Haan ji, except that none compares to Sunita Chachi,’ said the woman and laughed, her fleshy cheeks making way for two dimples, ‘chalo ji, now you stand here and let me do the aarti.’
Sukanya obediently stood still while Sunita expertly moved the heavy plate with a burning flame, camphor sticks, incense, flowers, mishri and dhoop in large circles about her person, all the while smiling broadly. Bade Papa, Natwar and the little girl stood to the side and watched. Sunita broke a coconut at Sukanya’s feet and fed her some sugar crystals. Sukanya peeped inside the house. It was large and small at the same time, endless tiny rooms tightly woven together.
‘Now we have welcomed you properly,’ Sunita finally pronounced Sukanya worthy of an entry into the sanctum sanctorum, ‘come and meet Badi Mummy.’
Sukanya stepped inside the house and found herself in a small enclosure. There was a niche in the wall where two small idols sat and had probably been sitting for the last hundred years, silently accepting prayers and soot. To the left was a room, built at a higher level than the rest of the house. The thick, wooden door to the room was closed. Bade Papa opened the door and looked inside.
‘Sukanya is here,’ he said quietly and took Sukanya’s hand to guide her in, ‘come, beta.’
Sukanya stepped inside and saw her grandmother. How perfect and faded she looked, like an old Renaissance masterpiece crying for restoration. She was very thin and fair. Her hair was oiled and plaited. She was wearing a thin, cotton sari that had little lavender blooms printed all over. Semi-sitting in her bed, propped by pillows, for all the world looking like a gorgeous queen waiting to receive her subjects. This was all getting surreal, thought Sukanya, any moment now she would wake up and find herself in her bedroom, these unreal people and this unreal house all fading into the recesses of a confused dream.
‘I could not kick the bucket without meeting you, child,’ she said and smiled.
‘Goodness, Dadi, no one told me you were this gorgeous,’ blurted Sukanya, making everyone laugh. Dadi laughed too. Sukanya sat at the foot of her bed. Dadi took her hand and a steady stream of tears started making its way down her faded rose face. Sukanya was getting used to this, people seeing her and bursting into tears. She patted Dadi’s hand, waiting for her to calm down.
‘Arrey bitiya,’ Natwar seemed to be in charge of controlling the free flow of unabashed tears. ‘Those were not the days of beauty contests. Otherwise, Badi Mummy would have been Miss Universe only, no?’
Sukanya laughed.
‘Sure thing, Dadi. Miss Universe and Miss World,’ she said, ‘in the same year.’
Dadi laughed again, her watery eyes shining.
‘Except that at the age that they ask for in Miss World, I was married and had two children,’ said Dadi. Dadi seemed to be very interested in the flight, checking repeatedly with Sukanya if she had been frightened at the time of take-off and what did she do for food and indeed, if there was a functioning bathroom in the aircraft. Then she took out a couple of gold bangles from under her pillow and put them on Sukanya. A little later, she made Bade Papa fetch little white biscuits called nan-khatais. Then she wanted to order jalebis.
‘You can’t cram all the years into one day,’ Bade Papa finally said, calming the flurry somewhat.
‘Should I show Sukanya to her room?’ Sunita bustled in importantly, her little girl following her about determinedly, her two oiled plaits swinging on either side, a small black bindi between her heavily-kohled eyes.
‘Yes, give her some tea and something to eat. Hai, what kismet, my granddaughter has come home and I cannot even feed her my famous sookhe aloo and paranthas,’ said Dadi, sadly.
‘Oh Dadi, plenty of time for that,’ said Sukanya encouragingly and got up. ‘You will cook and I will eat and that’s that. I will just keep my stuff and come back.’
‘Balvinder has kept your luggage in your room already,’ said Sunita as she led the way up a steep covered staircase that had walls on both sides and exposed bricks peeking through them, ‘I will help you unpack.’ Help unpack? Sukanya, a little dazed by all this attention, shook her head weakly, the thought of Sunita Chachi neatly organizing her underwear causing mild panic.
Her designated room was large, but most of it was covered by a large bed. A grilled door opened to what seemed like a small balcony. A very old-fashioned dressing table stood in a corner, a little forlorn in its emptiness, a forgotten bindi stuck in one corner. Sukanya walked about, touching the cupboard that had been built into the wall, again with wooden doors, painted a revolting shade of green in another era. Sunita opened the door to the balcony and a gust of fresh air came inside.
‘Oh this is nice,’ said Sukanya and stepped out on the balcony that opened out on the gulley. ‘The houses are all so close together. We can easily shake hands with the people standing on the other side of the lane.’ Sunita looked a little aghast at the thought.
‘Don’t do that. Keep the balcony door closed,’ she now warned, ‘there are many monkeys around and they are completely fearless. They snatched my new sunglasses right out of my hands. But what to do, Hanuman ji only they are. We should not harm them.’ Evidently the pain of the robbed sunglasses was struggling with the piety in Sunita’s heart. Now she sighed loudly and hauled herself up, bangles clanging, the siren call of the kitchen clearly too much for her to resist.
‘Which one is your room, Sunita Chachi?’ asked Sukanya as the older woman turned to go downstairs to fetch tea. People seemed to eat all the time in this place.
‘Ha ha ha, arrey, I don’t live here, beta. I am actually only your neighbour. The house right across the gulley is ours. I drop in everyday for sometime to take care of things and to spend time with Badi Mummy. They have no one here, na,’ and now Sunita flushed to the roots of her hair. Sukanya looked at her face, amused at how sensitive everyone was being. Sunita muttered something about organizing hot samosas and proceeded downstairs.
Sukanya kicked off her shoes and flopped on the bed, raising a faint cloud of dust. Whose room was this? What awaited her in the coming months? How sick really was Badi Mummy? What had made her insist on this trip?
When Sunita came back bearing a tray of tea and samosas, she found Sukanya fast asleep on the bed, her mouth slightly open as she dreamt of London and its lemonade stalls.
Copyright Parul Sharma 2015. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any form, in whole or in part, may be made without the written permission of Parul Sharma.