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Krishna Sobti
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Krishna Sobti

Susan gives Ammu some glucose. Ammu opens her eyes. Seeing her daughter seated in the chair, she looks pleased.

- Ai ladki, when I was a little girl, I used to sit in the courtyard and stare at the trees. My Dadaji mustíve seen me watching them. One day he called me and said - Child, what is it that fascinates you about them? They are not even fruit bearing trees. I said - Dadaji, I look at the foliage of the trees. Fluttering in the sunlight, the leaves seem to be half silver and half green. When they move in the breeze they are beautiful.

Dadaji was delighted when he heard that. He caressed my head affectionately. Again and again. Those days have flown away like birds from a tree. Forget them! Whatís the use of talking about them any more?

Susan, get me needle and thread from the needle basket. Get me a hank of wool. No, let it be. Lying here I shall roll the wool into balls. If I donít do something, my fingers will become stiff.

Taking a deep breath - Ladki, my hands are numb. My fingers are getting moist. The daughter bends and touches her hands.

- Your body is feverish, Ammu. Whatís the matter?

- Pain, terrible pain. Ladki, death is ruthless. It knows no pity. It never leaves its task unfinished.

My back is laid out on thorns. The lacerations are deep. I am sure there are new eruptions.

Susan, make me lie on my side. What misery! Pus has accumulated around the iron-rod.

Susan and the daughter scrutinise Ammiís back.

- Such a large growth! Itís full of pus. The doctor must see it. Ammu, why didnít you tell us earlier?

- Keep quiet, donít provoke me to say something unpleasant. It was your duty and Susanís to see to all this.

Susan has been changing the bed sheets. Has been making correct or incorrect entries in the chart. I had fever yesterday also.

- Ammiji, I apologise. Please forgive me.

- I wonít say anything. When the doctor comes, he will pull you up. A patient, dependent on others, is dead even before death arrives.

Seeing her daughter pick up the telephone to speak to the doctor - Ai ladki, let it be. Doctors donít have a cure for me anymore. They only pretend... create false hopes!

Slowly, as if to herself - This iron rod hurts the bone. My back too. It is an old frame. I donít know where the seams have given way. I want to know what has happened to me.

The daughter, drawing near - Ammu, are the bedsores bothering you?

- All my life, my body suffered the bed and now it is going to do me in. Time! Ladki, listen to me. When life is spent, this storehouse of energy is also exhausted. That is what they call old age.

Susan, make the bed later. First sponge my face and hands.

Susan, moving the towel over Ammuís face - Ammiji, I hope youíve pardoned me.

- Make up with your didi. She is very hard-hearted. The other daughters have taken after their father. They can neither be harsh towards anybody nor bear any harshness. But this daughter of mine has taken after her mother.

Both laugh.

- Susan, first tie up my hair. Then give me my spectacles from the cabinet. I want to see your flustered face. If you think about it, how are you to be blamed for this new misery? Your carelessness is limited; you only failed to observe what was happening to the patient.

The daughter, after telephoning the doctor - Ammu, you shouldíve told us that you were in pain.

- Donít be silly. Let the patient retain at least some self-respect. Did you expect me to groan to let you know?

There, the doctor has arrived. Thatís how he rings the bell. I can tell from the pressure on the bell-button, heís a doctor. The bell goes on ringing.

Ai ladki, all movements stop at this point. And then start again. Thatís nature!

- Ammiji, how are you? Whatís the news?

- Son, you donít expect me to say that Iím not well. That would be insulting the doctor and his medicine.

The doctor takes the temperature and then examines the abscess on her back.

- Son, it is spreading merrily. Now youíll have to make a new diagnosis. The rod in the body has played a new trick.

- Since when have you been in pain?

- It has increased over the past two days. Before that, it was bearable. Youíre not going to cut me open again?

- Ammiji, pus has collected. Iíll drain it. You will get some relief.

- Son, leave something with me so that I can pay the toll tax. I donít want to be stranded for non-payment of the tax.

- Ammiji, donít move. And what is this about toll tax?

- Son, all vehicles are stopped at the Shimla barrier. It seems that Iím standing at that checkpost. Letís see when my turn comes to pass through the check-post. Thatís all thatís left now.

- There will be some pain, Ammiji...

- You go ahead. Iíll bear it.

In my childhood, I had the strength to work on my own... Wind is very powerful. It turns into a storm and uproots trees.

Son, how long will it take?

- Not very long.

- Son, shouldnít people like me be sent to the moon while they are still alive and allowed to turn into manure up there? A human being may be born there someday.

- Ammiji, thereís no oxygen there. Various countries of the world are exploring the moon. They may find a solution.

- Doctor, may I take some brandy in milk? The pain has taken a toll on my energy.

- Susan, bring some milk for Ammiji with a little chocolate in it.

- Doctor, for years I weighed only 50 kilos. Even when I had children, I didnít allow an inch of fat to accumulate. Regular pace of life. Everything according to routine. No fried or oily food. I made sure that I took a tonic after every childbirth. Vin Carnis! I was never lazy. Iím making up for all that now. Iím only completing my quota of the rations.

Doctor, how long will you keep me here?

- Ammiji, take rest. Eat whatever you wish to eat. Have no worries, no anxieties.

Ammu, with a smile - So, youíve opened the gate at last. My throat gets very dry. May I take cold things?

- Why not? Milk, yoghurt, ice-cream, whatever you like. But it will be better if you take only warm things today.

Handing over the prescription to Susan - Before going to sleep and then once every four hours. If she feels any discomfort, call me.

Ammiji, may I take leave of you now?

- May you live long, my son. Earn a lot. Make your patients live long.

- Ammu, why are you saying all this to the doctor?

- Donít take it amiss, ladki. The doctor is like one of the patientís very own. One should say what one wants to. It lightens the heart and also the pain.

Isnít it so, doctor?

The doctor smiles - All right, Ammiji. Whenever you have a problem, ring me up yourself.

- Wonít your wife take it amiss?

Laughter.

The daughter returns after seeing the doctor to the door.

- Ammi, the doctor appeared embarrassed at your remark about prolonging the life of his patients.

- No, ladki, he knew that I was only joking.

- Ammu, you must be feeling better now? Anything on your mind ó any anxieties, any regrets?

- No. Some experiences in life are salty and others are sweet. Thatís all. Whatís there to regret? Everyoneís horoscope has bright and dark patches. Joy and sorrow, gain and loss, ups and downs ó all show up by turns. No oneís life is a bed of roses forever. Good and bad days are mingled. Only the One above can stop this flow of time.

We must understand one thing. Only the one who makes a boat can float on the sea. Those who work reap the fruit. Thatís how one celebrates life. Achieves something.

My journey here has lasted too long.

- Ammu, if you like, shall we arrange a recitation from the scriptures?

- Itís a good idea. Scriptures are like amrit. They calm the mind. But arrange for the recitation afterwards. Donít get into the whole rigmarole of rituals. Do only what is required.

Whatís that smell from the kitchen? Is someone making halwa? Ladki, those who love food, sing its praises. It has innumerable attributes.

- Ammu, the halwa you made on Sankranti was delicious.

Pursuing her own train of thoughts - Ladki, these days Iím assailed by memories of your nana. When he was close to his death, he would call out repeatedly - What delicious aroma is this? Is it suji being fried on a slow fire? Bring it as soon as itís ready. Come on, bring it quickly. Donít delay. All those present would smile, but my mother would get anxious. Your nani took great care of him.

Ladki, one passes through this stage too. Silence begins to descend on man. If you look within, youíll see a storehouse heaped with old stuff. Remembrances of days past.

Why are you getting up? Sit for some time.

Ladki, some people get entangled in a net of attachments. Look at me, I am still so involved in your life. Lying here, I watch you go out. Come back in. Think. Work. Tell me, can I help it? Every moment brings its own train of thoughts.

- Ammu, donít think about unpleasant things.

- Youíre right. It is neither easy nor possible to grope about in the air with your hands. Memories are what I have earned during my lifetime. Now all the days I get are a bonus. Ladki, just see if thereís an earthen lamp lying somewhere. Keep it handy. Where will you look for it when itís needed?

I donít see your brother. I have been waiting for him since yesterday. Whatís the matter?

- Ammu, he is out of station. On tour.

- Ai ladki, why must you try to fool me? There were toffees and peppermint under my pillow this morning. He alone thinks of such things. Even when I was not ill, he used to leave chocolate bars for me in the refrigerator.

How will it help to send him on tour? Ladki, your brother is pure and simple-hearted. He often gets held up; mustíve been detained.

Wives sit at home and criticise. Find faults. I donít know what faults they will find after I am gone.

- Mammu, let it be.

- All right. It is not important. But donít give me comforting excuses. Ladki, he must be reading the Grihastha Pustika (the family primer) ó the last chapter.

Laughs.

As a child, your brother was very chubby. He had curly hair. Looked very charming when he smiled mischievously. As soon as he returned from school, he would sit down with his books. When questioned, he would say he was memorising his lesson.

Have you understood what I said? This time too he is repeating his lessons!

- No, Ammu. Donít think like that. He quietly attends to so many things for you.

- Why shouldnít he? After all, he is my son. Canít sons love their mothers? Why are they inhibited? They pretend that they have long forgotten their mothers. It pleases their wives. Mothers are relegated to the last chapter.

The same string of old queries - Why didnít you tell me? After all, why didnít you remember it? Why didnít your mother say this? Why did she not do that? Why did she not give me this at the right time?

Ammu laughs.

Recriminations and quips, annoyance and displeasure ó these are parts of the game. It doesnít pay to be always sweet and nice.

Ladki, do you think your brother will reach here in time to perform the last rites?

- Yes, Amma.

- Ladki, that is the way of the world ó when the wind blows, old rafters shake. The usual calculations. Practical considerations. The path lies in the direction in which you walk.

Ladki, it appears that the sap in me has dried. I feel like a fish out of water. There is sand all around.

- Ammu, let me get you some soft halwa. Shall I add some crushed almonds to it?

- That is exactly what I wanted. I was just about to ask you. Ladki, the two of us are well attuned to each other.

Ammu looks towards Susan for sometime. Then starts dozing. Opens her eyes. To herself -

Water to the rivers

Rivers to the ocean

Life to liberation!

I donít know how far I have to go and how long itíll take. This is only a halting place. When I am asleep, I hear something from times past, like the sound of rain.

An ancient woman, you have completed all your tasks. Now this body must be left behind.


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