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  Ai Ladki — 2  

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Krishna Sobti
  Ramakanta Rath
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Krishna Sobti

- Ammu, what happened during the Kalka-Shimla journey?

- Your Dadima had got a basket ready for the journey ó lemons, oranges, pickles, appetisers, aam-papad. As soon as the train emerged out of a tunnel, she would ask ó Bahu, are you feeling dizzy? Feeling queasy? I would say Ďnoí and continue to stare out of the window.

Your father didnít like my saying Ďnoí.

Trying to impose his will on me, he said loudly ó You should answer properly; itís impossible that you are not dizzy.

I felt diffident to say something in reply, because Dada sahib was with us. Then I thought there was no harm in saying the right thing.

I blurted out ó When Iíve resolved that I will not feel dizzy, why should I feel dizzy? Your father frowned ó These are mountain roads, oneís resolve doesnít work here.

Dada sahib smiled and quietly signalled to his son ó Iím very pleased with our daughter. She has been riding horses she knows how to control horses. She has confidence in herself. Your dada and dadi laughed, but your father sat sullenly. I donít know why something said so naturally cast a shadow between the two of us for a long time.

Once in a while, your father would seriously say ó One has to learn a lot more in order to become accomplished. Mere horse riding doesnít help.

Ladki, a man must always be in control. His place is above, not below.

If there is some truth to rebirth, I would like to be born as a man in my next birth. I want to know how, like a warrior on the move he dominates women and the family.

Donít laugh. It is a serious matter. Every woman knows it.

After a brief nap - Drinking tea again? Have milk with something in it. You should always add something to milk. It helps ward off exhaustion.

- Ammi, I hope you are feeling refreshed now?

- Yes. I dozed off while talking to you. Donít know where my thoughts got stuck. I was dreaming that I was walking through a thick fog. At times I felt I was walking up Jakhu Hill. At other times, I felt I was going down the hill to Tooti Kandi.

I was walking alone but there was some sound trailing behind me. It was the sound of high-heeled shoes. You see, it was a dream and as soon as I realised it was the sound of my own shoes. It was a very old pair of shoes. Your father had got it made by a Chinese shoemaker soon after our marriage. Cream-coloured leather ó soft as silk. The heels were narrow. But so light to walk in that I could reach Mashobra in the twinkling of an eye. I walk very fast. No, no, not now. There was a time when I used to walk very fast. Not now! I mustíve bragged about it. I am paying for it now.

After a long silence - It has snowed heavily. The ridge, with the Church at one end, is covered with snow. Why has the Church clock stopped ticking? It has not struck the hours for a long time. Just see what time it is.

The daughter looks at her wrist-watch.

- Four.

Ammi, pursuing her own train of thought - We were about to reach Kalka. We had left Barog behind quite some time ago. The tea you got there could not be matched anywhere else.

The daughter stares past the table-lamp.

Ammi, feeling the bed with her hands - Where is my fur coat? I had it on. See if itís on the upper berth. Look for it. I got it made. The fur was bought by your father from some shepherd. Have you found it?

- Itís lying in your cupboard, Ammi.

Ammi remains silent for a long time. Then excited, in a sharp voice - Youíve already started misplacing my things. Thatís bad.

Susan, bring my spectacles from the cabinet. Get me my dentures too after brushing them clean. Why didnít you remind me? Itís your duty. Ai ladki, donít you see how careless she has become?

My keys were there in my purse. Bring them to me... Are they there or not?

The daughter takes the purse out of the cupboard and gives it to her mother.

Ammi rummages inside it and finds the bunch of keys. As if remembering something - My guineas were also in this purse.

- They are in the locker, Ammi. Rest assured.

In deep thought, Ammi looks around the room as if searching for something - Tell me, girl, I havenít seen your father for many days. Where is he?

The daughter places her hand on her motherís head.

- Ammi, rest for a while. Soon it will be time for your morning tea.

Ammi looks towards the door, helplessly. Then, in a feeble voice - Give me something to eat. My mouth is dry.

The daughter to Susan - Bring the tin of dry fruits here.

The daughter puts some raisins in the motherís mouth after removing their pips.

Ammi, after chewing for quite sometime - The last fruit of the season. This is pleasure. Real pleasure. Have you ever seen an almond tree? No, you havenít. How could you have? Ai ladki, that one pleasure is the source of several pleasures. You havenít experienced anything.

Dawn. The daughter draws aside the curtains from the doors and windows to allow the light in.

Ammi just lies in bed staring. Then, all of a sudden, in a shrill voice - Since when have you decided to do my work?

So, you have pushed me aside finally. It was always my responsibility ó first draw the curtains, then open the windows.

- Ammu, were you able to snatch some sleep?

- Yes, but only in the early part of the night.

Ladki, dawn is a great blessing. The one who sleeps through it, misses a lot. He neither sees the instant when day and night meet nor when they part. When birds sing in the faint flush of dawn, the entire world sings.

It is auspicious to be up early in the morning. Your family bathes at night. But ladki, I refused to imitate your family and change my routine. I always bathed in the morning.

I used to walk around Jakhu early in the morning even when it was snowing. Your father used to get up late. I would give him tea on my return.

Ladki, in winter the monkey brigade descended from Jakhu and occupied the roads. Leapt here and there. One morning they surrounded me. I had my stick in my hand, but I stopped and said endearingly ó No, sons, no, let ma pass. Tomorrow I will bring you some roasted gram.

Ladki, monkeys understand everything. They moved aside and let me pass.

- Ammu, what about the gram?

- I took some along the next day.

I can still see the Church road and the large room of our Shimla house. When it snowed, there was always a fire in the fireplace. Donít know where those days have gone.

- Susan, have you given Ammu a wash?

- What are you saying? I am not a piece of cloth to be washed and spread out to dry. Iíve rinsed my teeth, had my face and hands washed and the bed sheets changed. Iím now ready for the morning addiction, tea.

- Iíll bring it in a moment

The daughter places the tea tray on the table.

- Have this first. Carrot murabba.

Ammu, pleased - Murabba by itself should have been enough. Why did you put cream on top of it? You werenít trained properly. Either you do things in excess, or you do nothing.

Suddenly, with a frown - I hope youíre not trying to pay off all your debts in this life itself so that the cycle of giving and taking comes to an end. You know how to act your part. Youíll pretend till the very end. You know your mother has lost interest in everything except in food and drink.

Susan adjusts the pillow, raises Ammiís head and gives her a cup of tea.

Holding the cup of tea excitedly - ĎDrink tea and live long!í The slogan of the tea company seems to have been written for me. Thanks to tea, Iím still alive.

After savouring a sip - Subtract the first 18 years of my life ó I drank milk till then ó and multiply the rest of the days by four and youíll know how many cups of tea this woman has drunk.

Ammu laughs.

Donít know how many more cups are left for me.

The daughter places her empty cup on the table.

- Shall I play the record you like?

- First, a second cup of tea. Morning tea is comparable to music. If the water is boiled, the cup warmed, and there are fresh tea leaves in the kettle, then no music is sweeter.

Susan laughs - Ammiji, tea companies should give you an award.

- They have ó tins of Lipton Green. In exchange for coupons collected at an exhibition. Ladki, many things changed in my kitchen, except for Lipton Green tea. Itís a blessing for all those who are alive. Drink as long as you live. Go on drinking. Afterwards, the cup will lie unclaimed.

The daughter stops pouring tea into the cup.

Donít hold back. Itís wrong to leave a cup half-filled. Even a cup has dignity. It canít drink itself, but offers a drink to others. Imagine its first creator. Did he know what he had created? Ladki, a cup is made to be picked up and lifted to the lips to drink. Drink as long as you can.

The daughter bursts out laughing - Ammu, one more?

Ammi first looks surprised and then says angrily - One more? What? Are you mocking me? Tormenting a sick old woman. That is bad.

- Ammi, I didnít say anything to hurt you.

- No. you didnít. It was silly of me. I know you think Iím sitting on the seashore and counting the waves. You know that you are provoking me to say things.

- Ammu, it was said innocently. I am sorry if I hurt you.

- Donít forget that youíre talking to your mother, not distributing toffees over the telephone ó with a smile to some, a joke to another, a coquettish remark to yet another. Look at yourself carefully, and tell me who you are? Your colleagues have become grandmothers. You think you are still young.

The daughter keeps her eyes glued to the wall opposite.

I know well what you are waiting for these days. That your mother should die and so liberate you. Tell me, whom will you boss around? You have nobody. You are neither a mother nor a grandmother. Ladki, you are nothing more than a vegetable, a blade of grass, a piece of straw! Do you even understand what I am saying?

The daughter, yelling - Stop it, Ammi.

- Did I say anything wrong? What Iím saying is right. This canít be said in any other way.

The daughter gets up from the chair.

Where are you going?

- Iíll fetch some fresh tea. Shall I add some cardamom?

- I only added cardamom to milk, never to tea.

Susan picks up the tray.

- No, no, leave the tea there. My daughter will get me some milk. First she will boil it. Then she will work it into a froth and pat it down. Crush some almonds to add to it. So many of them that their smell is suppressed. Susan, are you listening? Her eyes have no control over her hands.

Hands know whatís to be done, only when one has a family. Then, restraint comes by itself.

She spends what she gets. Balance has its own beauty; neither too much, nor too little. Managing a household teaches one the virtue of measure. Add a handful where a handful is needed, a pinch where a pinch is needed. But she has no sense of proportion. She is always confused... I donít know why. She has three or four servants, yet she complains of fatigue. Iím tired, she says.

Even my illness is work. Never in my life have I ever seen her sleep at night. No friend, no companion. She spends her time with books. And on top of it ó she is even proud to be alone.

Seeing Susan smile - Why are you eavesdropping? I am talking to myself on the telephone.

The daughter comes in with milk.

- Ammi, should I connect you to somebody on the telephone? What number should I dial?

- Why should you dial a number for me? You want to know the secrets I have hidden behind seven veils? Ai ladki, are you keeping a watch on me? Thatís not a good thing.

- Ammu, just take a sip of the milk and tell me if the sugar is all right.

- Yes. You have tasted it. You have added raisins, cinnamon and cardamom. And five almonds.

- Ammi, how did you know that?

- From the sounds. When you were shelling them, I was all ears. Iím passing through the stage of vanaprastha. Ears watch and eyes hear. Old people have sharp ears.

Ai ladki, tell me something, as I pick up one end of the thread, the other end slips out. Has a fractured hip anything to do with memory?

- No, Ammu. Youíre more alert and observant than I am. Ask the doctor what he thinks of his patient.

- I know my doctor only too well. Donít you call him up. Heíll tell you that your mother is out of her mind and will prescribe one more medicine.

Both of them laugh together.

- Ladki, a chronically ill patient can be diagnosed for anything. Really speaking, old age itself is to blame. Though, a doctor can detect more ailments. Prescription after prescription. His medicines are as ineffective as his fees. But I must admit that my doctor has worked very hard. It is just that this body is worn out.

- Ammu, try to take your mind off all this for a while.

- Youíre right but what can I do? Iím besieged by the enemy. Disease, illness is the enemy. I can only moan and cry. The body lies bruised.

Ai ladki, you canít expect to hear the clink of bangles in this room nor the cry of a new born child.

The time doctors have spent here would have been enough to nurture a child. Ai ladki, thought alone doesnít produce a baby! It involves labour; a motherís blood and sweat.

Long silence.

A human being challenges death by producing a child. Arri, you ride a buffalo like Yamaraj. But we create by the grace of the Sun. Ai ladki, the Sun is the supreme hero of this Universe. All other planets are inferior to him.

- Ammu, they say Kunti had a son from the Sun.

- No. If the Sun had covered Kunti, the entire race wouldíve been annihilated. The fact is that every male in this world draws his strength from the Sun. By the Sunís grace alone, is he invigorated and his passion aroused.

- And woman?

- She is the Earth. She is the supreme energy, which surrounds the male from all sides, draws him within her fold.

Susan, what are you doing? Donít fiddle with the switches. I donít like darkness. Iím not going to sleep yet.

Ammu closes her eyes. Then she suddenly opens them and stares at her daughter.

- Ladki, I think white ants are eating through you. They must have eaten you hollow by now. Tell me why you didnít leave. Kept drawing nourishment from your own roots. After all, what is it that you wanted? Tell me. Say something. Answer my question.

- Ammu!

- Tell me I am a burden on you. Ladki, why didnít you throw me away like a snake around your neck? Nobody had put manacles on your hands.

Ai ladki, nobody in this world can steal anyoneís will-power. Donít you ever hold me responsible for this. Not now, not in the future.

Exhausted, closes her eyes.

 


p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4 p. 5 p. 6 p. 7

 
Krishna Sobti is an Akademi Award-winning Hindi novelist. Ai Ladki is also a successful stage production. Translated from the Hindi by Shivanath