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Krishna Sobti

I was eighteen when I got married. Your father was a handsome well-built man, pure of heart. We got along splendidly. Imagine, where and when I started life.

Ai ladki, tell me, why do you people consider yourself a cut above others? In families, decay usually sets in by the third generation. It is not good that family pride should turn oneís head.

- Ammu, every family has its own memories.

- Yes, I know. But families donít rise and fall. Just not possible!

- Here you see me lying in front of you. Can you bring back that fresh young girl in her bridal dress from somewhere? Can you? You simply canít.

After a short pause - Ladki, your mother looked beautiful as a bride. Seeing me, people felt a certain fondness for me.

How one decays with time! There is a time for going up the ladder. And there is a time for coming down. No one remains beautiful forever.

- Ammu, after marriage, how did you find your new family?

- Donít you flaunt your family. When I arrived, the fortunes of your family were already in decline.

There was no lack of pride and vanity. But there was a lot of humility and meekness also. The grandeur of the large mansion had faded, but it was there all the same. There was affluence and penury.

- Ammu, tell me about my father.

- Yes. Once families begin to decline, they continue to do so till they are completely ruined. Your father was very calm by nature. Sober. I was a bit stern.

But I was keen to learn and I did. I learnt a lot from him.

Ammu, suddenly excited - Youíre making me talk and talk, but why?

Are you trying to distract me or amuse yourself?

Old age deprives one of all grace. Makes one graceless. Its darkness engulfs all human beings.

Iím a burden on all of you. Who needs such a long life! My daughterís son died at the age of twenty seven. Oh! How handsome, tall and well-formed! It was a terrible blow. There was no appeal, no protest against that ó neither here, nor up there. He didnít die, he was murdered.

Ladki, just show me his photograph. I can see him standing before my eyes. You were needed here very much, son! Why were you snatched away? It was the day of your betrothal. Your fiancee, bedecked in her best, kept waiting. The engagement ring never reached her finger.

- Ladki, thereís someone else who makes us play a part in this lila.

And see what my other grandson, his elder brother, did. He followed the same road as if to challenge fate. He brought home the same girl as the promised daughter-in-law of the family.

They spared no effort to save you, Chitra. Your share of life was over! The game came to an end within a year. She couldnít see the one whom she brought forth.

Susan, put some drops in my eyes. I donít know why they are watering. My eyes have become old.

- Ammiji, will you have Horlicks with some chocolate in it or tea?

- Give me whatever you like. Has Didi left this room?

- She has gone to lie down for a while.

- Cover me with the double bedsheet.

- Double bedsheet? It is very hot, Ammiji!

- Do what I tell you to do. You donít know anything about the tune and the rhyme of this song. You stick to your own time-table. Give the medicine. Apply the bandage. Give the injection. Take the temperature. Ring up the doctor. Make the patient turn to one side.

Why are you smiling? Your records will go into the wastepaper basket. Everybodyís record goes there.

- Ammiji, Iíll go and get the Horlicks.

- No, no! You should attend to my head first. It feels hollow inside. Put some oil in my hair, Susan.

Susan applies oil to Ammiís hair. Ammi closes her eyes.

After a nap - Hasnít she got up? Is Didi still sleeping?

- Yes, Ammiji.

- My nails are bothering me. Cut them.

- Ammiji, I cut your nails only yesterday.

- You may have cut them, but do as I say. Just to please me.

Are your brothers married, Susan?

- Yes, both of them.

- Do you send money to your parents?

- Yes.

- Do you know a boy whom you want to marry? Youíve to find one yourself.

- No, Ammiji, not yet. Iíll do a course in nursing first.

- Good idea, Susan. Stick to it. Donít drop it. You surely have a friend?

Susan smiles.

You donít spend too much on him, I hope?

- No, Ammiji.

- Listen to me. See that neither you nor he bears the entire expenses. You should share the expenses. Otherwise youíll find yourself being taken for a ride. You understand what I mean?

- Yes Ammiji.

- Susan, after marriage, donít become a plaything in the hands of anyone. Try to be strongÖ See who has come. Somebody has just rung the doorbell.

- No Ammiji. Thereís nobody.

- Go and see again. Itís time for Shobha Ram to come.

- Ammiji, he has been in the kitchen for quite some time.

- Go and find out if the kheer is ready. You remember we had decided to cook it in the morning.

- Ammiji, pranaam!

- May you live long.

- The kheer is ready. Will you taste it?

- Bring me some. Just two spoonfuls.

- Here it is, I have added some roasted nuts.

- You know that I still have my original teeth and theyíre strong.

- Ammiji, shall I make puass in the evening?

- No, no. Even kheer is pretty heavy.

- Someday Iíll tell you what goes well with what. I have coped with all sorts of demands in this regard.

The daughter, standing close to her - Ammu, whatís this talk about demands? Should be interesting. Please tell us.

- Shobha Ram, the kheer is very delicious. May you continue making delicious halwa, puri, pakodas, kheer, puass for our delight. But remember you have one more task to perform.

Donít make any excuses. You have to take Amma upto that place.

The daughter, light-heartedly - What was that about demands?

- Nothing special. Squabbles over food and cooking. What else. Whenever there was a long argument on that subject, I had a solution. I would place the tea tray before your father - Tea is waiting for you. Here is your cup. Please have it first.

Your father appreciated good tea. It would make him forget everything else.

- Ammu, did you really have many clashes with father?

- Perhaps. I donít remember all that now. Why are you provoking me? Is it necessary to know all that?

- Ammu, whatís the harm in knowing?

- Ai ladki, everyoneís life passes through a series of encounters. In a family, the game is never amongst equals; itís between unequal players. The master of the house provides for the family; he grows in strength and authority. The childrenís mother is a hostage to his authority.

- Ammu!

- Yes, after marriage, a woman takes over the oars of a family. You have seen boats and gondolas floating in the lake. The family, seated in the boat enjoys the boat ride, while the woman works at the oars. She rows the boat all her life.

Her situation improves only when she starts earning her own livelihood.

Think about it ó when a man works, he gets money in return. A woman toils day and night and earns nothing. She loses herself in love and attachment. Ignorant. Unmindful. If she doesnít look after herself, who is going to bother about her?

- Ammu, you are so enlightened!

- Keep quiet, girl. You are quick to pounce upon my words. Why? I know your trick. The journey is mine but you enjoy the scene.

Looking towards the window - Change these heavy curtains. Let fresh air come in. Ladki, let me be quiet for some time. My own past is unfolding within me.

Ammu closes her eyes.

After some time, seeing her daughter seated in front - Youíre still sitting there? Tell me, girl, what are you doing in this world? Show me a single thing that youíve earned this life. What are your own achievements? On top of that you want to judge what I have done.

The daughter, getting up - Iím going to the other room.

- No, please sit down. Keep me company.

Iíll tell you something which will interest you. I have very little time left. Tell me, where do you stand? At what turn? Do you have anyone waiting for you? You are not welcome in the family circles of your brother and sisters.

- Ammu, the same topic again?

- Ai ladki, donít interrupt me. Let me say things clearly. See, Iíve a son and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters, a whole family and yet Iím alone.

And you? Youíre outside that time-worn tale in which there is a husband, children and a family.

You may not have the support of a family structure, but you are independent.

Ladki, itís great to be independent, noble. If you also had to run a family, you wouldíve realised by now that a familyís glory rests on relationships.

A woman is either somebodyís wife, daughter-in-law, mother, nani or dadi. And again the same round of food, clothes, jewellery. Ladki, she is the mistress of the house only in name. When she is no longer of any use, she is shown her place.

The daughter, smiling - Ammu, youíre unbeatable!

- If you think carefully, thereís an answer to every question.

- Susan! Get some juice for Ammu and for me too.

- You are a girl in tune with your times. You are wasting your sap on something which is dry.

- Get something really cold. My throat is parched.

It was nice, Susan. My thirst is quenched. You should also have some.

Ladki, you have no idea how much tact a woman with a family has to develop and how much restraint she has to exercise. You are free. No one restrains or controls you. You do as you please. Remember that one needs to be independent of oneís own self too. Do you ever let yourself go? Iím not talking about willfulness. Have you ever been able to do something that you really wanted to do?

- Ammu, what shall I say?

Long silence in the room.

- I ran this house with clockwork efficiency, but I did nothing worthwhile for my own fulfillment.

Now, I regret it very much.

The daughter, surprised - What is it that you wanted to do, Ammu?

- I wanted to climb mountains, stand on their summits, but how could I have done that and yet performed the daily chores of the home? Who would have listened to me? He couldnít even cope with the family problems. Whatís more, he was a stickler for punctuality, everything had to be on time. I was turned into a clock.

The daughter looks out of the window. Susan starts folding the clothes.

Ammu snaps at her - Why are you piling up those clothes, Susan? As though a new baby has arrived in the family.

This old woman is going to leave this world. The pile of old clothes...

The daughter gets up and puts on a record of sitar music. Ammu listens to the music for sometime with her eyes closed and with a sense of wonder.

Then in vexation - Stop it! This noise is not good for me. Try to understand things. My veins have dried up. Music plays havoc with my body. Why are there black spots before my eyes? Ask someone.

As Susan tries to cover her. Ammu, with a start - Why are you people troubling me? Pull the curtains apart. Let some fresh air in. Hurry up. Iím feeling suffocated.

Why are you silent? Listen to me carefully. Iím not asking for the moon. Iím only demanding my rights. Give them to me. Let me breathe fresh air.

Susan draws the window curtains apart.

- Ammiji, the glare will come in from outside.

- This is a cave, a cave! Why have you closed me in? Open the doors. Who has bolted them? Call the girl who is playing these tricks on me. Call my daughter. Take me to the balcony. I wonít stay in this room even for a moment.

- Susan, give Amma glucose. I shall make a bed for her to lie on in the balcony.

- Ai ladki, donít put me off. You have to make me sit in a chair. I donít want to lie down. I wonít lie down. Iíll sit. Ladki, let me decide today.

- Ammu, any movement will open the sores.

- I donít need your sympathy ó donít worry either about me or my sores. Do as I say.

Susan places an easy chair in the balcony and spreads a mattress and a bedsheet on it. Places a cushion for support. Then both of them lift Ammi and take her out.

Ammu, after being seated in the chair, excitedly - What season is it now? The trees are still. Not a leaf moves. What month is it?

The daughter, not paying attention to what she has said, remains quiet, with her hands resting on the railing.

I asked you something. Answer me. Itís not nice to ignore me.

- Ammi, itís the third week of May.

- Now thereíll be dust storms. Look at the sky ó its colour has turned dusty. It looks so alien. Has its strength been drained away by its grown-up children? It looks ancient.

Ladki, the sky appears to have aged.

Ammu raises her head and looks at the electric poles. Keeping her eyes fixed on the trees below - Neem trees have a longer span of life than the golden flesh-and-bone tree of manís life.

- Ammu, the neem trees are full of fresh leaves. The one outside your room has grown so tall.

- In this season, neem trees are full of fragrance. When they blossom, they give out a sweet smell. Their fragrance makes the daughters of the earth throb with desire.

- What then, Ammu?

- Then what, silly? They go to the ones they long for. Physical desires have their consequences.

Ladki, I feel like a fish out of water again. The blood in my body has dried. Terrible thirst. Give me some soda with ice-cream and fetch one more chair. My son is about to come. He comes here straight from the office.

The daughter remains silent.

What is a woman, who canít supplant a sonís mother, worth?

- Ammu, you too have passed through such a phase.

- Yes. I too must have. All women do.

- Is it necessary to do so?

- I think so. Only then can a woman put her stamp on the mind and body of her husband, possess him. She has to do it. Otherwise she can have no peace and comfort.

Ammu smiles.

Everyoneís temperament is different. Some are more suspicious and some more trusting.

Men understand all this. The rule of family life is ó give and take. The one who gives must also take.

Susan feeds Ammu ice-cream with a spoon.

May you live long. Iím gratified.

Ammu, back in the room ó This ice-cream reminds me of pistachio kulfi. We had it at Chandpal Ghat.

- What was special about it, Ammu?

- The time and the place. That place took oneís breath away. Sirens were screaming. Lights glimmered on the water. There were boats. The shores were full of festivities. There was a canopy of moonlight overhead. Stars twinkled. The moon was in full splendour. Ladki, the exuberance of life on earth and water was awesome. Who would like to leave this earth after such a vision? But one has to depart when it is time.

When I went to Calcutta, I visited a number of places. Ladki, one evening my elder daughter took me and her little granddaughter there.

Three lines of families got together. You can call them three generations. My daughter, the daughter of my grandson and I.

Ladki, children in families rejuvenate the old, elderly people. Thus, the elders first become aware of their own ages and then forget them. They lose themselves in children.

That evening, your sister acted as though she was the elder one and I, her mother, the younger.

On the other hand, her naughty grand-daughter, an only child, gave the impression that her papaís nani was not only old but also a child. She entreated me again and again - Nani-amma, have one more ice-cream. Let us share it ó half-half.

There are occasions when off-shoots of families get together. Wait daughter. I can see a vision...

- Whatís it, Ammu?

Ammu gives a toothless smile - A horse. Fleet-footed. Strong. You havenít done any horse riding. Youíve neither developed your capacity to rein in a horse nor known its vigour and speed.

Ladki, only the one who understands his own times, is favoured by the gods.

Only the hand that earns, dispenses according to its wishes. The daughter looks beyond the walls and closes her eyes.

If you are feeling bored, why donít you go out for a stroll?

The daughter leaves and comes back after changing her clothes.

- Ammu, Iím going out for a cup of coffee. Do you want me to bring back something? Pineapple pastry?

- Yes, Iíll have some. Come back when you like. Donít worry about me. Youíll find me here. Iíll still be here.

Yes. If you go for a hair-cut, ask the hairdresser to come and trim my hair too. My hair feels heavy on my head. It weighs me down. A trim will give me relief. I find it difficult to manage my hair.

- Susan, keep the towels, shampoo, hair oil, everything ready. She wonít have much time. If she comes before I return, get Mammuís hair trimmed. Ammu, is that all right?

- Yes.

Silence! Without my daughter!

Did you notice, Susan? After she left, the room has become cheerless.

- Ammiji, Didi loves you very much.

- She not only loves me but also understands me. There is a difference between the two. It is one thing to love, quite another to understand. She is always sensitive to the needs of others.

Susan, your Didi looks rather vexed. I donít know what is bothering her.

- Nothing, Ammiji, Didi gets tired.

- Will you be able to take care of her, after Iím gone? She needs a lot of rest. When she works, she forgets everything else. She is not afraid of hard work. Itíll be good if you stay on. Susan, she has an austere exterior but she gives everyone his or her due.

Do me a favour, Susan. Go outside and see the colour of the sky. Are there any signs of rain?

Once it rains, Iíll bathe in the open and be washed clean. My back is in bad shape, no doubt. Medicines, bandages and who knows what else.

- The sores appear to be healing, Ammiji.

- Donít try to fool me. You see the sores when you dress them. I canít see them. Still, I know better than you because I feel the pain.

Smiling - One canít see oneís own back. But I know its condition because I have to suffer.

Leave it. Tell me, if you have ever had a bath in a river. Cold and hot showers are nothing in comparison. I have bathed in a baoli, a river, a lake and in the sea. Profound pleasure! Immense joy! I bathed in the sea at Puri to my heartís content. It was my elder daughter who took me there.

- Ammiji, do you miss Badi Didi?

- Why shouldnít I? She is my first born.

- There were more boys in my in-lawsí family. When she arrived, there was great rejoicing.

- And the youngest daughter, Ammiji?

- She is very intelligent. But once she gets annoyed, it is very difficult to bring her round. Parents pass on their qualities and eccentricities to their children. Children exhibit the characteristics that they acquire from the soil in which they grow, and the elements that go into their making.

Listening carefully ó I hear something. See if thereís somebody at the door. Must be my son.

- Ammiji, thereís nobody at the door.

Go and see again... Maybe itís Prabha... My eldest daughterís eldest girl. She takes after her father. She manages her affairs efficiently.

Listen, Susan, you have seen Mira too, her younger sister. She is very elegant and charming. She often comes to meet me. Now wipe my face with a cold towel. The neck too. Susan, this neck of mine has to carry the weight of my hair now.

The daughter, on returning - Ammu, youíre looking better. Your hair has been well set.

- You have had an outing, thatís why I look cheerful to you.

- No. Shorter hair suits you.

- I donít know why I didnít think of it before. If I had got my hair trimmed earlier, it wouldíve given me some relief. Itís so much lighter on the neck now.

Listen, formerly, at the time of marriage, the brideís hair used to be braided in such a way that it seemed as if all the worldís constraints had been woven into her hair.

When I arrived at my in-lawsí house, your father asked me at the very first opportunity - Donít you find it bothersome to plait your hair like that? Your head must feel very heavy.

I said - I like a single braid, but this is according to custom. Your father said - Look there is no convention or custom that canít be changed in this family. You can certainly do whatever is comfortable and convenient and what pleases you.

- Ammu, how did you feel when you heard that?

- I liked it. It felt good. I thought I would be able to pull on well. Your father was soft and disciplined by nature. There were no unnecessary restrictions on me. But there was a certain family tradition and I had no freedom to modify it or tamper with it. The family upheld it strictly.

- Ammu, that was plain stubbornness!

- No, Iíll call it discipline. Your dadajiís sense of discipline and balance was amazing. Both father and son were alike in that. I learnt about equality after coming to this family. I observed that they didnít discriminate between boys and girls.

- And Ammu, in your parentsí family? In our Nanaís family?

- Leave that out. Thereís no point in comparing the two.

- Tell me please, Ammu.

- There was no dearth of love and affection in your nanaís family, too. Plenty to eat and drink, plenty of time to play and dresses to wear. But even then, there was always a sharp line drawn between boys and girls.

During your nanaís terminal illness, we sisters used to take turns to be with him, but whenever he had to call someone, it was always his son. It made me very sad. I felt disheartened and wondered why there was such attachment to a son.

Ladki, at a time like this, one tends to lose track of things. Everything looks frayed.

What was I saying? Let me recollect. Our brother was sent to a college and we sisters were made to take lessons from a granthi and a maulvi.

Just imagine, what I wouldíve become, if I had only studied like my brother. How I would have shaped and how my children wouldíve developed. The fact is that girls are prepared for a life of drudgery.

Brother is studying. Go and give him milk.

Brother is sleeping. Go and cover him with the blanket. Hurry up. Place the plate of food before your brother. He is hungry.

Your brother has eaten. Now you may also eat.


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