Note: This story contains some Hindi words. Their meanings are written here for the benefit of the reader.
1. Roti : Flatbreads made of wheat, usually, but also of other cereals.
2. Daadi : Grandmother.
3. Maa/Amma : Mother.
4. Babuji : Father.
5. Chulha : Firewood stove.
6. Bhabhi : Sister-in-law.
7. Salwar : A loose-fitting trouser-like garment.
8. Didi : Elder sister.
9. Zamindar : A landowner, by caste.
10. Pallu : The (usually decorated) end of a saree.
11. Beta : Son.
12. Maut ka Kuaan : The “well of death” stunt.
13. Kaka : Uncle.
14. Devar : Younger brother-in-law
15. Bhaiya : Elder brother.
16. Lehenga : Long skirt.
17. Kaaki : Aunt.
“Rinku, give this roti to daadi.”
“Bittu, come here. Take this daal for papa.”
“Rinku’s maa, send some rice for babuji.” Madhav bellowed from the other room.
Jyoti blew air into the chullah, trying to keep the flame burning. The December morning sun was as yet obscured, because the fog was still strong. And yet, inside the kitchen, it was getting hot now. She rolled another ball of dough and wiped the sweat off her forehead on the back of her hand.
The family’s three-room hut was perched among a line of small, similar mud houses in the village. It had a dried-grass roof and a courtyard in front and to the sides. A rickety barbed wire fence marked the boundary. A narrow brick alley ran outside the house.
Later, in the afternoon, when the in-laws were having their siestas and Madhav went to find work for the off-season, Jyoti got to work on the sewing machine. The village wasn’t particularly big, but her work gave the household a decent income supplement.
There was a knock on the door.
“Are you Jyoti bhabhi?” A girl, opening the door halfway through, asked.
“Please come in, I’m Jyoti.”
The girl opened the door and walked in, mindful of the raised platform on the floor.
“I have to get this salwar repaired. It got torn in the fields yesterday.”
Jyoti took a good look at the girl. She was wearing a yellow top with blue jeans that were tight around her legs. She was checking something on her mobile phone.
“You don’t seem to be from the village,” Jyoti remarked.
She looked up from her phone and smiled.
“No, not actually. I live in the capital city. My grandparents live here.”
“So you’re on a trip,” she gushed.
“Sort of, yes.”
Nikita was bemused with the obvious question. She brushed it off with a smile though. She watched as the woman, who didn’t look much older than herself, searched for matching threads for her salwar. She sat down on the plastic chair kept nearby.
As she was fixing the thread in the machine, Jyoti looked at her again and asked, “If you don’t mind me asking, how’s the city?”
“How’s the city? Well, it’s like a city. It is, uh, good. Yes, like any other city.”
“There must be big houses and big cars and lots of, um, what are they called, malls! No?”
Nikita had to smile this time. This woman was funny. She pocketed her mobile phone and sat upright, eager now.
“Yes, there are.”
“So, do you go to the malls?”
“Sometimes, yes, on the weekends.”
“Wow, that’s nice.” She spun the yarn through the needle and cut off a portion from it.
“Where do you go on the weekends?”
Jyoti could only grin at the question.
“Sometimes I go to Mala Didi’s house. They’re our neighbours.” She was busy running the machine on the torn portion of the salwar.
Nikita felt a tug at her heart.
Jyoti continued. “So, do you have any kids?”
It was the visitor’s turn to laugh now. Jyoti felt embarrassed.
“No kids. I’m not even married yet.”
Nikita shook her head, smiling at Jyoti.
“You city folks marry late, don’t you?”
Nikita knotted her eyebrows, disbelieving.
“I’m barely 20, bhabhi ji.”
“Oh!” Jyoti remarked, making it sound like she got how heavy that answer should be. Rinku was a year old by the time she was 20.
“So, you came alone to visit your grandparents?”
“Yes,” she shrugged.
“No.” She shrugged again. “I have family here, I’m old enough, so I can travel alone to meet them. Besides, papa and mummy have gone on their annual pilgrimage. I didn’t want to go there. So, I came here.”
“But how can you travel alone, from there to here?”
“Because I can.”
She smiled and got up from the chair as Jyoti cut the thread from where the sewing finished.
Nikita took out some notes from the back pocket of her jeans and paid her.
“Bye,” Jyoti said, as she looked at the girl’s clothes from the back. She then turned her gaze away, to her machine.
That night, as fog covered the village like a shawl from a fairy tale, and after the ubiquitous kerosene lamps were blown off, Jyoti and Madhav were lying on their bed. The kids were already fast asleep.
“The harvest season is over. I went to everyone today for work, but there isn’t enough. I think I should go to the capital tomorrow. Maybe find some work there.”
“Can you take us too, with you?”
He paused for a second and then spoke. “I don’t know whether and when I would get work. Besides, who’d take care of Maalti, and maa-babuji?”
“Babuji can milk Maalti, and Maa ji can make food for the two of them. Our kids would have the chance to study in a proper school too.”
“I understand, Jyoti, but without any surety of income, if I take you guys too, it might be more of a problem.”
“It’s fine, I get it. Maybe after Holi, we’ll see.”
“Yes, later.” He hugged her.
Next morning, before leaving, he came into the bedroom.
“If you need anything, ask maa. Take care of them.”
“I will,” she nodded.
He kissed her on the forehead, then on the lips, completing a favoured ritual they had every time he went out of station for work.
A week later, one day, the afternoon sun was peeking through the clouds as Jyoti was cleaning up Maalti’s dung. She heard an announcement over a cyclist’s loudspeaker.
“Come one, come all, witness the marvel of the handlooms and handicrafts of our great nation. There’s something, for everyone. Bharat Fair. Venue : Ramlila Ground, Badanagar.”
Badanagar was the closest town from the village, six kilometres away. Jyoti liked the idea of going to the fair. But she knew that getting permission might be trickier.
That evening, before dinner, as she was carrying out her daily duty of massaging her mother-in-law’s feet and arms, she ran the question around in her head, trying to come up with the best way of asking permission for going to the fair. Her sons were playing in the courtyard.
Finally, she gathered courage. She opened her mouth to speak, but words didn’t come out. Her throat had choked with the cold. Deeti, her mother-in-law, who was telling her about the zamindar’s nephews, glanced at her. She cleared her throat, and started again.
“Maaji, have you heard of the fair in Badanagar?”
“Ah, yes, heard some of the oldies talking about it in the afternoon. They have handlooms and handicrafts, no?”
“Yes. We need a shawl for the kids. They shiver at nights.”
“But don’t you sleep with them?”
“I do. Late at nights, I spread my quilt over them, or cover them with the jute bags over the shawl.” She uttered.
“Okay, don’t worry. I’ll ask your babuji to go to the fair and buy a shawl.”
“I would like to go there, to the fair,” she quickly said, the added, as if remembering an important thing, “if you permit.”
“No. What does a woman need to go a fair for? And how it would look if you were to go to the market in your husband’s absence, by yourself?”
“I can ask Mala bhabhi to accompany me and the kids.” Mala was the wife of the neighbour’s son.
“No need. You will tend to the house. Babuji will get the shawl.”
Jyoti bowed her head in silence.
That night, after everyone was asleep, Rinku woke up to sounds of someone crying. He woke up and turned around to see his mother sniffling in the pallu of her saree.
“Maa.” He put a hand on her shoulder.
Almost immediately, Jyoti went silent. She opened her eyes and looked at the face of her firstborn in the darkness, pierced only by a stream of moonlight coming through the gaps between the upper reaches of the wall and the slope of the roof.
“What happened, maa?”
“Nothing, beta. Everything is fine.”
“Then why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying, son. See.” She forced a smile.
“I know you were crying, maa. You’re upset about Daadi having refused you permission, aren’t you?”
Jyoti was shocked. How could an eight year-old understand these things?
“No beta, there’s nothing like that. I’m fine, believe me.”
Rinku embraced his mother and said, “When I grow up, maa, I’ll get you lots of gifts, and we will go around the world.”
“Oh my lovely child,” she kissed him on the forehead. “I think we need to first sleep properly for that.”
Madhav had found work at a construction site in the city. He had been unable to go back to his home in all his time in the city. Three months later, as his village was getting ready for the upcoming festival of colours – Holi, he finally managed to convince his supervisor for a two-day leave. He caught the last bus of the night, which reached his village in the early hours of the next day.
“This is for you,” he said to Jyoti on the night of his arrival, handing her a green cotton saree. Jyoti beamed.
After some chit-chat inquiring about the kids and the neighbours, he shifted to the side of her feet on the bed. Their bed was a quilt spread on the mud floor, covered with a thin bedsheet that was fraying at the edges. He took her left feet in his hands.
“Hey, what are you doing?” She whispered, looking up from the saree, amused at her husband.
He made a shushing sign with his finger and lips.
She kept staring at him, and her eyes went wide when he slipped a silver toering in the second toe. She sucked in a breath.
“This must be very costly.”
“No.” He smiled.
In her blush, he saw her from the year they had married, the redness of her lips rising to her cheeks and her quivering eyebrows. He kissed her.
Afterwards, as they were lying on the bed, with the kids long in dream land, she took his face in her palm and turned it towards herself.
“There’s this circus in Badanagar. Dheeti and Munni said it is quite something. When would we go?”
Madhav was about to speak when he heard his father cough in the adjoining room. He closed his mouth and motioned to his wife that they will talk about it in the morning.
It was a bright morning. The sun had come up early and was shining with all its power over the spring landscape. Deeti bathed right after sunrise and went to the village temple. When she returned, the men were out. She entered the kitchen and asked Jyoti for breakfast.
“How is the circus like, Jyoti?”
Jyoti didn’t think it’d be wise to answer that question to the best of her knowledge. She was wiping a plate with a cloth.
“No idea, maaji. I have only heard that they have the “maut ka kuaan.””
“But you still want to visit it, no?”
Jyoti felt a congestion develop in her chest.
“No, no, not at all. Who told you this?”
“I know you want to. Get this thing clear in your head, woman. Your place is inside the walls of this house.” Her voice was rising. “You will not do anything of the sort that would bring disrepute to the family name. Understood?”
“Now give me food.”
Jyoti turned towards the chulha and fluttered her eyes to control the tears that had started forming.
That evening, as the spring sun was losing some of its harshness, she climbed on the terrace of the neighbour’s house with a heavy cloth in her hand. Mala was there, drying some red chillies for pickling. Jyoti had brought cut unripe mangoes in the cloth.
“How are you, Jyoti?”
“I have been slicing up these mangoes to dry on your terrace.”
“Let me have a look at your stock. Where did you get this?”
“From Birju kaka. He gave your devarji mangoes at a cheaper rate than the usual, from Rai sahab’s orchard.”
“Wow, these seem quite good. Can you get three kilos for me too?”
“I’ll ask him.”
The women went about spreading their respective pickle materials, with gossip for seasoning.
“You know Babita has a fling going on with the zamindar’s nephew.”
Jyoti, who had her doubts about the said woman, was still shocked.
“Really? I didn’t know.”
“You must be the only one then, to not know this.” Mala replied, then added, “Apart from her husband, of course.” Both women guffawed.
“How did you get this news?”
“They were seen fooling around behind the circus tents, in Badanagar.”
Jyoti broke into a grin.
“What? You think that’s impossible?”
Jyoti remained silent.
Mala pressed on. “I used to think so too, until I saw it with my own eyes.”
“You went to the circus?”
“With Dalbir bhaiya?”
“No, no. He’s not interested. So I took Babita along. Little did I know…,” she paused for dramatic effect, seeing Jyoti hooked on to her words, “…that this minx would go behind my back there.”
“How did you get permission from your family? From your mother-in-law, specially.”
Mala only gave a knowing smile.
“Please tell me.”
“I made sure that my mother-in-law and husband were both happy enough.”
“Ammaji demands an oil massage for her scalp and body every evening. The night before last, I made sure I massaged her scalp and hands and back and feet and thighs, everything. That made her happy.”
“Well, him I made extra happy.”
“Come to me after dinner. Bring an extra dupatta along.”
Madhav had a tiring day. Festival atmosphere meant he had to go around to a lot of relatives’ and acquaintances’ houses in and around the village. Taxing as it was, he realised he felt happier and more content after doing all the roaming around. Now he simply wanted to have a deep sleep, but his wife had forbidden him. “Don’t sleep before I return,” she’d warned after dinner. She had left the lamp burning, lowering the flame to the bare minimum. What kind of work couldn’t wait till the morning, Madhav wondered, before shaking his head, unsure what went through his wife’s mind.
His eyes opened to the sound of the room’s wooden door creaking open. He looked up from the floor to see his wife standing there, wearing a lehenga he felt he hadn’t seen earlier. She walked to the lamp and turned up the wick, brightening the room instantly. Then she took a step back and took off the dupatta. An uncertain number of seconds later, Madhav realised he was holding his breath, in awe and enthrall, but that his heart was beating faster nonetheless. He was getting up from the bed when she knelt down on the bed herself. He took in the view, the shimmering almond skin, the glittering earrings, the embroidered choli, the eyelashes that stretched wider than ever, the glistening, enticing lips, and the big, deep eyes. He cupped her face in her hands. She put the flat of her hand on his chest and forced him back on the bed, crossing her legs across his torso.
The couple realised the night had flown by when the flame of the lamp went out. They both looked up to the wall, after which Jyoti giggled and rested her head on his chest, lying down on the bed to his right. She ran her hands through the hair on his chest, while he ran his through her head.
“Listen, I want to ask something.”
“Yeah.” He was kissing the top of her head.
“I want you to take us to the circus.”
“Umm, okay. Tomorrow morning?”
Jyoti raised herself on her left elbow and forearm, grinning in both disbelief and joy. “Yes.”
“You’ll be gone tomorrow night anyway, so.”
“You want to go, right?”
“I do, yes. I don’t even remember the last time I went out.”
“Is that the issue? Just this?”
She blushed, then lowered herself on to her side again and hugged him.
“I’ll confirm with mother early in the morning. Then we’ll go. Okay?”
Jyoti tried to breathe in the sudden trepidation. Everything will be fine, she knew.
Jyoti woke up with the sun. She swept the courtyard. She was washing the kids’ clothes when she heard quick, heavy footsteps on the alley outside. Her mother-in-law marched in.
“Useless, shameless, sorry excuse of a woman, who the hell do you think you are?”
“What happened, maaji?” She was washing Bittu’s soiled pants on the small rectangular brick patch they used as the laundry floor, although her speed had dropped down.
“What happened? Oh, now this demoness is trying to act like a saint,” she thundered, before shaking her body and making a face, mock-uttering, “she doesn’t know anything.”
The bells in Jyoti’s mind now started tolling with full fury, Deeti’s barrage of abuse words overpowering her composure and equanimity. She couldn’t bring herself to wash the clothes anymore. Madhav had also entered the courtyard, but he was avoiding her gaze. She felt something rising in her throat, and took three deep breaths to calm it down. She got up, wanting to walk out from the courtyard, wishing she could vanish somewhere right this moment. Her mother-in-law was up at her head, right behind her as she rose to pick up the washed clothes. She couldn’t think of what to do with those clothes, or why she was holding them up. Finally, she hung them to dry and went into her room.
The rest of the morning, Jyoti avoided facing anyone except her kids. She packed the lehenga-choli and the earrings she’d borrowed from Mala in an old newspaper and put them in a polythene pack, asking Bittu to return them.
That afternoon, Jyoti was fast asleep when Madhav came into their room. He lied down too, cuddling up to her. When he slipped his left hand over her waist, she shook and sat up with a start. Her eyes bore into him. She opened her mouth to say something, but then closed it again. Her body was shaking. She picked up a bedroll from the battered wooden box besides their bed and walked out of the room, into the kitchen.
Madhav had to leave after sundown. Jyoti cooked dinner for him. It had four rotis, fried potatoes, mango chutney and radish pickles, kept in various compartments of the tiffin.
“Why don’t you have an early dinner here only?” His mother asked as Jyoti was packing the tiffin.
“No mother. There’s no time. I’d get late if I sat down to eat. I’ll eat on the bus later.”
A few minutes later, he went inside their room and called out to Jyoti.
“Rinku’s mummy, come here for a second.”
Jyoti got up from the wooden stool and went into the bedroom.
Madhav gave her money and asked her to take care of herself and the kids. She grunted her affirmation.
Madhav, seeing no initiative from his wife, came close to her, raising her face with his folded index finger, lowering his own face towards her. She jerked her head away from his hand and walked out of the room.
The next morning, Jyoti was done with all her chores by 7 am.
“Give me a cup of tea, Jyoti.” Deeti said from the courtyard.
Jyoti was dressed in a saree, her hair tied in a bun. She was combing the kids’ hairs. Deeti was sitting across from Jyoti, eyeing her up.
“There’s no milk, maaji, so I haven’t made tea. Breakfast is ready, though.” Jyoti glanced at her.
“At seven in the morning?”
“Yes. Plenty of families in our village take their breakfasts by 6 am.” She didn’t raise her head.
“What’s the hurry today? Your breakfast isn’t even cooked by 8 on most days. And by the way, what’s with the all this dressing up?” Deeti asked.
“I have to take the kids to the barber’s, and then to the circus.” She looked up and square in Deeti’s eyes, holding the gaze as the mother-in-law’s expressions changed from shock to surprise to a mix of disgust and anger.
“Your babuji can do that. You don’t need to go. I’ll ask him.”
“No need, maaji.”
“No. I’m taking them myself.”
“What? What do you think…”
“Look, Maaji, these are my kids, and I will decide who takes them out. And I will also decide if and when I should go to the circus.”
“Because I can.”
She got up from the stool and walked out with her kids, closing the door behind them. If she had looked back, she’d have seen bewilderment writ large on her mother-in-law’s face.
Featured image credit.
P. S. – Here’s the song whose title serves as the title of this story too :
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