Authors: Manju Kapur
Tags: #Fiction, #General
my mother, her mother
About the Author
The historical events of this novel have been
used in purely imaginative reconstructions.
The one thing I had wanted was not to be like my mother. Now she was gone and I stared at the fire that rose from her shrivelled body, dry-eyed, leaden, half dead myself, while my relatives clustered around the pyre and wept.
When the ashes were cold, my uncle and I went to the ghat to collect them. All around us were tear-stricken people dressed in white, sitting on benches, standing in groups, some with corpses before them, some clustered around bodies burning on daises. The air was smoky, and the breeze blew the stench about. It was not a place to linger in, but I felt unable to move, staring stupidly at the little pile. The inscription on the raised concrete slab announced that a Seth Ram Krishna Dalmia had been burnt there, and his loving widow, brother, and children had labelled this spot in commemoration. On every bench and burning platform, were names and dates, marks of people gone and people left behind. Not a scrap of cement was left unclaimed. I stared again at my mother’s ashes and wondered what memorial I could give her. She, who had not wanted to be mourned in any way.
When I die, she said to me, I want my body donated. My eyes, my heart, my kidneys, any organ that can be of use. That way someone will value me after I have gone.
I glared at her, as pain began to gnaw at me.
And, she went on, when I die I want no shor-shaar. I don’t want a chauth, I don’t want an uthala, I want no one called, no one informed.
Why bother having a funeral at all? I asked. Somebody might actually come.
Why do you deliberately misunderstand me? she countered.
And here, contrary to her wishes, she was being burnt with her organs intact. I walked quickly towards the gate, following my uncle to the car.
‘Last Journey’, ‘Remember God and Death are Beside You Every Moment of Your Life’, splashed on the blue exitway under a garish portrait of Shiv, screamed out the impermanence of our lives, while three beggars in saffron robes and matted hair sat on the ground below, tin begging-bowls in front of them.
Going through her papers, I find a bent, scallop-edged photograph, faded brown and sepia. The girl is about fifteen, and stands stiffly before the camera. Her hair straggles untidily, her sari hangs limp and careless on her. I peer at the face and see beauty and a wistful melancholy. Should my memory persist in touching her, the bloom will vanish into the mother I knew, silent, brisk, and bad-tempered.
I stare at this early photograph of an unknown woman and let despair and sorrow run their course. I could not remember a time it had been right between us, and the guilt that her life had kept in check now overwhelmed me.
‘You must come and visit us often, Ida, very often,’ my relatives said as they left Delhi. ‘Now we only are your father and mother.’ I decided, yes, I must go to our birthplace, hers and mine, overrun with aunts and uncles still living in the ancestral home.
The train has not yet moved out of the station, but the women squashed next to me in this second-class ladies’ compartment are already producing vast quantities of food, puris and parathas wrapped in Britannia-bread waxed paper, aalu ki sabzi in mithai boxes, mango pickle, lemon pickle, little packets of chopped onion and cucumber. Chewing firmly and audibly, they offer me some, but I refuse. They eat and feed their children, pressing another puri, some more vegetables, upon them, followed by water from plastic water-carriers. At stations they shout for tea and cold drinks. From time to time they stare openly at me, middle-aged, alone, and not eating. After the food, their life stories will be spread and consumed, but these are exchanges I am no longer equal to.
I gaze out of the window, and try to whip up some feeling for the landscape. Monotonous fields, buffaloes sitting in muddy ponds edged with slime and lotuses, little brown boys waving at the train as it passes, level-crossings with cars, rickshaws, scooters, buses, and tongas waiting on either side of rickety fences. By and by I am politely asked to get up, so that the berths may be lowered and beddings opened out and spread. By ten o’clock everybody has settled down to sleep. Only the overhead blue night-light remains on.
Once again, I am on my way to the house that, through my childhood, I had slipped into as easily as a second skin. My mother had sent me to Amritsar during all my school holidays, away from my half-siblings, and the proxy warfare conducted on the battlefields of my home.
At six a.m. we reach Amritsar. I gather my things and hasten out to take a rickshaw, avoiding the little family groups, exclaiming, hugging, kissing. No matter how I might rationalize otherwise, I feel my existence as a single woman reverberate desolately on that platform.
The house the cycle rickshaw turns into is an old-fashioned bungalow, with a tall, bushy henna hedge screening a lawn with thick, even grass, ringed with low lemon, papaya and orange trees. The walls protecting the house on the roadside are eight feet high, topped with jagged spikes of coloured glass. The gate is a big, wide, metal sheet, bent and out of shape. To one side is a small doorway for people on foot or cycle.
I step on to the deep, cool, black and white tiled veranda. A couple of old wooden wicker chairs, with their long leg-rests tucked underneath the arms, are lined against the wall. I was born in this house, in one of the small rooms at the back. I sit down on those tiles, and remain there fingering the cracks between them.
I had not told my aunts and uncles I was coming, and, when they see me, I am carried off inside, on a wave of accusations and explanations.
Amritsar was a place I associated with my mother. Without her, I am lost. I look for ways to connect.
I know my relatives feel sorry for me. I am without husband, child or parents. I can see the ancient wheels of my divorce still grinding and clanking in their heads.
Now I show curiosity about them. I wonder how they remember their past. I probe and find that: gold was forty rupees a tola, it cost eight annas to go from Amritsar to Lahore, ten rupees to go from Lahore to Calcutta, six pice to stitch a pyjama, two annas to stitch a shirt, school fees started at four annas a month in the junior classes and ended at one rupee at matric. Ghee was one rupee a seer, milk was four annas a seer, atta was one rupee for twelve seers. The milk had a thick layer of malai, yellow, not white, like nowadays. And when food was cooked, ah, the fragrance of the ghee!
At this point, words fail them.
I had grown up on the mythology of pure ghee, milk, butter, and lassi, and whenever I came to Amritsar, I noticed the fanatical gleam in the eyes of people as they talked of those legendary items. Perhaps, if I could have shared that passion, the barriers of time and space would have melted like pure ghee in the warmth of my palm. But my tastes are different.
I try and ask about my mother, the way she was before I knew her.
There had been eleven of them. The girls: Virmati, Indumati, Gunvati, Hemavati, Vidyavati, and Parvati. The boys: Kailashnath, Gopinath, Krishanath, Prakashnath, and Hiranath.
My relatives are polite, respectful to the dead. I am not satisfied. I dig and dig until they reveal reluctantly.
You know, our mother was always sick, and Virmati, as eldest, had to run the house and look after us.
We depended on her, but she was free with her tongue and her hands. One tight slap she would give for nothing.
She would lash out if we didn’t listen. We used to run from her when she came. She was only our sister, but she acted very bossy.
We were scared of her.
She never rested or played with us, she always had some work.
She was so keen to study,
First FA, then BA, then BT on top of that. Even after her marriage, she went for an MA to Government College, Lahore, you know – very good college, not like nowadays. The Oxford of the East they called it.
She studied more than any other girl in this family. Bhai Sahib – your father – was very particular about education.
But why do you want all this? What is past is past. Forget about it. Eat, have another paratha, you are so thin.
My relatives gave me one view of my mother, I wanted another.
Ever since Virmati could remember she had been looking after children. It wasn’t only baby Parvati to whom she was indispensable, to her younger siblings she was second mother as well. She was impatient and intolerant of fuss. If they didn’t eat their meals, on her return home from school she would hunt out the offending brother or sister and shove the cold food down their throats. If they refused to wear the hand-me-down clothes she assigned them, she slapped them briskly. Usually once was enough. Sometimes she tried to be gentle, but it was weary work and she was almost always tired and harassed.
By the time Virmati was ten, she was as attuned to signs of her mother’s pregnancies as Kasturi herself. She would redden with shame over her aunt Lajwanti’s comments about the litter that was being bred on the other side of the angan wall. She did her best to make sure that none of the smaller children went over to the aunt’s side to pee or shit, that they looked neat and tidy when anybody came to visit. This did not improve her temper, or draw her closer to her brothers and sisters, but the children’s clean and oiled looks drew admiring comments from those who met them.
At times Virmati yearned for affection, for some sign that she was special. However, when she put her head next to the youngest baby, feeding in the mother’s arms, Kasturi would get irritated and push her away. ‘Have you seen to their food – milk – clothes – studies?’
Virmati, intent on the baby’s little hands and feet, was often not able to hear.
, you think there is all the time in the world for sitting around, doing nothing?’
‘I’m just going,’ protested Virmati finally. ‘Why can’t Indumati also take responsibility? Why does it always have to be me?’
‘You know they don’t listen to her‚’ snapped Kasturi. ‘You are the eldest. If you don’t see to things, who will?’
As Virmati got up to go, she realized her silliness. Why did she need to look for gestures when she knew how indispensable she was to her mother and the whole family?
By the time Virmati was sixteen, Kasturi could bear childbirth no more. For the eleventh time it had started, the heaviness in her belly, morning and evening nausea, bile in her throat while eating, hair falling out in clumps, giddiness when she got up suddenly. How trapped could nature make a woman? She turned to God, so bountiful with his gifts, and prayed ferociously for the miracle of a miscarriage. Her sandhya started and ended with this plea, that somehow she should drop the child she was carrying and never conceive again.
Every day, Kasturi entered the dark and slippery bathroom to check whether there was any promising reddish-looking mucus between her thighs. Nothing, always nothing, and tears gathered and flowed in the only privacy she knew. Her life seemed such a burden, her body so difficult to carry. Her sister-in-law’s words echoed in her ears, ‘Breeding like cats and dogs,’ ‘Harvest time again.’
Kasturi could not remember a time when she was not tired, when her feet and legs did not ache. Her back curved in towards the base of her spine, and carrying her children was a strain, even when they were very young. Her stomach was soft and spongy, her breasts long and unattractive. Her hair barely snaked down to mid-back, its length and thickness gone with her babies. Her teeth bled when she chewed her morning neem twigs, and she could feel some of them shaking. She had filled the house as her in-laws had wanted, but with another child there would be nothing left of her.
The next day, as she was serving her aunt-in-law her afternoon meal, she groaned a bit and looked faint. The bua looked up sharply.
‘One more?’ she asked.
Kasturi stared at the floor and blushed.
. How do you do it?’ asked her bua. ‘And so sick all the time.’
Kasturi reddened even more at the public betrayals of her flesh.
‘I am going to die, Maji, this time. I know it.’
‘Don’t talk such rubbish, beti,’ retorted the older woman sharply. ‘God has favoured you.’ Kasturi remained silent. From her bones to her mind she felt dull and heavy.
The next morning she called Pinnidatti, her dai.
The dai looked sympathetically at Kasturi’s drawn face and shadow-rimmed eyes. ‘There is a remedy‚’ she said at last.
Kasturi looked eager. ‘I’ll try it.’
‘It can be painful.’
‘I will die if I have another child,’ said Kasturi desperately.
There followed a series of bitter powders and liquids distilled from a dozen different roots and herbs. Kasturi felt sicker than she ever had in her life, she had nausea, cramps, blackouts, and headaches. Soon, soon, she kept repeating to herself as the cramps would come at her morning puja or while she was cooking in the kitchen. These sharp spasms must be the prelude to expulsion, she must be patient. After a month, weary with futile trips to the bathroom, weary of seeing no sign of the blood of delivery on her white, dry, left-hand fingers, she resorted to a twig the dai had given her to insert in her vagina. But still nothing of substance happened.
After the fourth month Kasturi told the dai to let it be. ‘God does not wish it. Otherwise why would all this pain not lead to something?’
‘The baby is strong,’ replied the dai. ‘Destined for great things.’
Through her exhaustion, Kasturi wondered at the punishment meted out to her for trying to interfere with the designs of God. She had had strong healthy children, no deaths, no miscarriages; whereas with only two children, her sister-in-law, Lajwanti, had had three spontaneous abortions. Instead of being grateful, she had rebelled, and pain and sickness had been the result.
The excitement she had felt at the birth of her first child seemed to belong to another life. Everybody then had been considerate of her youth, fears and inexperience. Her mother had been present. Her mother, who had come with all her own food, her dal, rice, flour, ghee, and spices, with her own servant boy to buy fruits and vegetables, to draw her drinking water from the market pump, to help with the household work. Light-as-air she had passed through, with not an anna spent on her, not a grain of wheat or drop of water taken from the house of her son-in-law.
Kasturi’s eleventh child was born on a cold December night. A small, puny little girl. The mother looked at the will of God lying next to her, closed her eyes, and let the tiredness of seventeen years of relentless child-bearing wash over her.
Kasturi had no milk. The new-born sucked with all her feeble might on her mother’s dry breasts, hanging milkless and flabby against her little chest. Kasturi got a new silver feeding-bottle, with an English nipple, something the other children had not needed. The baby developed a bad case of colic, and Virmati often came home from college to high-pitched, frantic screaming.
When Kasturi was finally allowed out of bed, she was still bleeding heavily. She would have to wash the stains on her bed-sheet herself, as the dai had stopped coming. She needed plenty of water, and she worked the pump in the dark and slippery bathroom furiously, shivering in the cold Amritsar December, her frame glistening wetly in the shadows. Though she knew she should hurry out of the bathroom and lie down till the dizziness grew less, rebellion filled her. Why should she look after her body? Hadn’t it made her life wretched enough?
The chills and trembling began soon after she reached her bed. Her moaning attracted the attention of the servant who hurriedly asked Chhote Baoji to send for the hakim, Pabiji looked very bad. The hakim declared he could not answer for Kasturi’s life if she had any more children. The vaid also said the same thing. A Western-educated allopath declared that repeated births deplete the body, and no medicine could help Kasturi through another pregnancy. She needed to build up her strength, she needed the fresh air of the mountains immediately, as much as she needed to be removed from the crowded and unhealthy bazaar permanently.
It was decided to send Kasturi to Dalhousie. Virmati was seventeen and studying for her FA exams, but since the tail end of her education was in sight, it was felt that missing a little of it to help her mother was quite in order. After all, in a year or so the girl would be married. The family hired a house near the central chowk, and Kasturi shifted with her eldest and youngest daughters to a hill station clean and bracing enough to work wonders with her health.