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Krishna Sobti

Ammu is quiet for some time.

Susan bends close to her.

- Whatís the matter, Ammiji?

Ammu, in a subdued voice - My eyes are smarting.

Something like smoke is spreading across them. See, what is happening?

The daughter goes to the kitchen and returns quickly.

- It seems someone is spreading a layer of fog over my eye I am not able to see anything clearly.

- Ammu, this will give some relief.

- What are you placing on my eyes?

- Mammu, these are pads of cream.

- Come close to me.

- Did you ever experience the sort of cool comfort you are giving to my eyes? Tell your mother honestly.

- No, Ammi.

There is silence in the room for sometime. Ammu, all of a sudden, unmindful of herself - When will it be a full moon night? When did the new moon appear? Tell me. Iím asking you.

The daughter, nonchalantly - Ammu, I donít know anything about the phases of the moon.

- Thatís why youíre carrying this load on your shoulders. Throw it away. Hurl it far away. Donít allow your time to turn into dust. Pull yourself up. Things are on the decline.

The daughter gets up and leaves the room. Susan gives Ammi some glucose in water.

When I conceived this daughter of mine, I donít know why I felt so lost, so solitary in my heart and mind. A feeling of loneliness possessed my whole being. I wished to go on walking alone on dusty paths. I felt as if a tall pine tree was growing inside me. And it was indeed a tree that I gave birth to. It is swaying in the wind, just swaying. There is nothing in front of it. Donít consider this girl to be cold at all; thereís fire in her veins. She keeps herself under control, I donít know how.

Susan, the bell is ringing. Someone has come. Must be my grandson and grand-daughter.

- Ammiji, they have gone to their nana and naniís place.

- Yes, to cheer up their nani. Since Iím about to leave this world, my sonís mother-in-law must be feeling disconsolate. Theyíve gone to comfort her. Susan, have you seen my grandson? He takes after his dadaji. He sits and gets up like him, moves his hands like him, even in his preferences for food...

Ammi dozes off.

On opening her eyes, Ammi immediately looks all around the room.

Seeing her daughter standing near the bed -Well, who are you? You are tense when you come in and you charge out like a bullet. Iíve seen your face somewhere. The splitting image of your father. Ladki, he wasnít arrogant. But, you are conceited. Thatís why you never shared anything with anyone.

The daughter tiptoes out of the room.

Susan, there is a piggy bank lying on the top of the cupboard. It is my grand-daughterís. Donít move it from there.

Iíve hung a hunk of silam yarn on the peg. Iím making a doll for my grand-daughter. Iíll make the dollís hair with it. See that you donít tangle it.

Why are the shutters of the windows banging against each other? Whose anchal is fluttering there again and again? Oh! It is my odhni. Catch it. Otherwise it will be blown away by the storm.

Susan goes out and returns with Didi. Both of them bend over Ammi.

- She has gone to sleep. She is in deep sleep.

- Susan, you rest for a while. Iíll sit here.

Ammi, on waking up, in a sharp voice - Susan, where are you? Change my bedsheets. They are wet.

Susan cleans up Ammi and changes the bedsheets.

After a long deep sleep, Ammu wakes with a start.

- Do you hear the sound of the train? The station is quite some distance away, but the screeching sound of the engine reaches this far. It pierces deep into me.

The daughter fondles Ammiís hair.

- When your father was preparing for his departure, he used to sit up, startled by the four oíclock train. I used to observe him silently. I never questioned him about anything. What was there to ask?

One night, he sat up on hearing the vibrations, and resting his elbow against the pillow, bent towards me - Can you hear that sound? It terrifies me! I kept quiet. What could I say?

When the journeyís end is near, one doesnít know what pulls at the heart-strings.

Clusters of past pleasures make one look back while the soul pushes towards the infinite. Back again.

The daughter feels her motherís pulse on the pretext of adjusting the covering sheet.

Ammu, gently - This old woman is faring well. Go and take some rest.

The daughter, in order to avoid embarrassment - Ammu, Iím going to prepare coffee for myself. Shall I get a cup for you too?

- No. If you wish, you may bring me some fresh fruit.

- Mango or plum?

- Let it be a mango. Its very name spells deliciousness. Ladki, your elder sister cuts fruit with the finesse of a machine. She cuts a mango into two halves; taps them with the point of a knife and puts cream over them. Itís as much a delight for the eyes as for the heart.

- Ammu, she mustíve learnt it from you.

- No. This ability to cut with finesse is characteristic of your family only. Not of mine.

The daughter, smiling - Ammu, whatís all this talk about my family and your family?

- Why? Whatís surprising about it? After marriage, when a woman strikes roots in her new home, she buries the days at her motherís in the backyard of her mind.

Look at me, Iím recollecting those days today after spending a whole lifetime.

- Ammu, thereís no fear of a clash now. Then, how did this thought of comparison arise in your mind?

- Donít be naive. Where was the time to think or speak about it? Now, lying here, I can see clearly the colours of the two, distinct from each other.

- Which side looks better, Ammu?

- Donít you boast, girl! My family wasnít less gifted.

- You come from the same branch. You kept all of us under firm control.

- No, your family doesnít mingle with anyone. It swallows up the qualities of everyone.

- Ammu, donít say that. This family has been dancing to your tune for a long time.

- Everything in your family, the pleasant and the unpleasant, is confused, scattered. I donít know what your family thinks and does. It is too absorbed in itself.

- Ammu, do you find all of us like that?

- What else? Look at what you are. You were always like that. My parentsí relatives did not give themselves airs the way you do. In your family, everyone thinks no end of himself or herself.

- Ammu, why are you saying all this?

- Let me talk. Iím not coming back again to tell you all this.

The beating and pounding that a woman endures after she becomes a housewife are not less than the upheavals of an earthquake. A woman is able to stand them because she has to.

- Ammu, if you were to come to this family again, how would you like it?

Ammu first scowls at her daughter and then begins to laugh - Well, Iím the old woman of this family. If someone does ask me before sending me to this world, Iíll come back only to this family. Your ancestors have accumulated a rich tradition in this house. This is my own family, why should I knock at somebody elseís door?

The daughter restrains herself with some effort and kisses her motherís forehead.

Iíve lived in this world for years and years. But during these last few days, it has occurred to me repeatedly that if I had known I was going to live for so long, I would have done something worthwhile. Seen this wide world. But I spent my days enmeshed in family responsibilities.

- Ammu, youíve done so much; youíve created a whole family.

- Ai ladki, donít exaggerate. Iím your mother, no doubt; but Iím different from you. Iím not you and youíre not me.

- Ammi, why donít you listen to me?

Ammi, irritated ó No. Keep quiet. Your show of concern will not do me any good now. Children swallow up all the time allotted to their mothers.

- Ammu, surely you must get some satisfaction ó happiness from someone at least?

- Iím not talking of that. Mother produces. Nurtures with love and care. Then why is she alone sacrificed? The family divides her into fragments and scatters her here and there. Why? So that she may not remain whole, spring back in one piece. A family keeps a mother like a cow or a nurse. She should go on working, catering to the comforts of its members; is that all she is good for? She can conjure any image she wants of herself, but for her children she is no more than a housekeeper.

Susan switches off the table lamp behind Ammiís head and Ammi shuts her eyes.

Midnight. Ammi, on waking - Susan, what time is it? Is it dusk or dawn?

- It is two oíclock at night, Ammiji.

- This night doesnít seem to end! Yes. Do something about my throat. I donít know what has happened. I have nothing to do. I lie here and my memory leaps back across time. Talks about the days gone by like a speeding train.

Susan gives Ammu some water to drink.

See if there is some misri lying around.

Ė Iíll get it Ammiji.

- The human body has been formed and structured to last a hundred years. I was doing all right. Had I not fractured my bone, I would have been fit.

- Whatís this Ammiji? Youíve undone the bandage again.

- Yes, Iíve opened it. Iíve only untied what was tied.

Susan helps Ammi turn on one side, wipes the sores and starts applying the dressing again.

- Susan, listen to me. Let it remain unbandaged.

- Ammiji, the sores will get lacerated. Theyíll start oozing pus.

- Donít talk rubbish! I know how much it hurts. Iím not wearing armour; Iím sprawled on a bed of arrows.

Susan, has the pick-up van passed by?

- What pick-up van, Ammiji?

- Susan, youíre not doing your duty properly. You have become careless. Youíve been in this house for months, and you donít even know when the pick-up van comes and goes.

- Ammiji, the station is far from here.

- Iím not speaking about the station. The pick-up van which comes from the depot to pick up the empty milk bottles and then returns to deliver bottles of fresh milk.

Susan picks up the thermos.

-Ammiji, milk or Complan?

- Nothing, I donít need anything. You take me to Didiís room.

- Iíll go and ask Didi.

- Ask Didi? Why? That room is also part of my house. Donít let me feel I am handicapped. First take me to the small room so that I can offer my prayers, Then to Didi.

Susan picks up Ammi in her arms. The daughter raises her head on hearing the sound of footsteps.

- Susan ó what are you up to? Ammu, here? At this time?

- Yes, havenít you gone to sleep yet?

Ladki, is there any harm if I lie down in your room and talk to you?

- No, Ammu. The daughter places a cushion on the divan.

- Susan, carefully, hereÖ itís all right. Ammu?

- Yes! Have you started anything new?

- No Ammu, an old piece was lying unfinished, I thought I would look at it.

- Now, stop thinking about too many things. Complete whatever you have in hand. Ladki, life is transient. Remember, do not consider this work any less important.

Ladki, this is also creation. Not inferior to the others. Life forces have a thousand channels. They may spring from anywhere and flow in any direction.

Ammi, after a moment - It seemed to me as I lay there, that just as day and night get separated from each other, mother and daughter also drift apart. I keep looking around to make sure that I was in the same room. In my room. In this very world. Then I thought, why shouldnít I go and see my daughter? So I came.

Susan was not inclined toÖ

Ammu smiles - The greatest blessing is to be able to do what one wants. Donít miss your mother too much. Go out for a few days. Youíre exhausted.

After a long silence - Will you retain Susan?

- No, Ammu.

- And the cook?

- Heíll also have to go.

- Canít you keep at least one of them?

- Itíll be difficult.

- If youíve vegetables, milk, curd and cheese in the refrigerator, you can manage on your own somehow. Doing your own cooking and serving is refreshing in a way.

- Yes.

- You must think of the future? Itís already too late, ladki. How will you manage alone?

- Somehow, Ammu.

Ammu, perplexed - If you are really determined, thereís nothing that you canít do. Thereís nothing so small or so big that you canít manage.

The daughter keeps looking at her mother.

Donít try to go against your grain.

- Ammu, if you have something important in mind, please tell me.

- No one will get jewellery, gold, cows, horses and fields from me. Only advice.

Ladki, the headship of a family does not pass to a daughter. According to the sacred texts, your brother alone will wear the turban. And the family flag will pass into the hands of the daughter-in-law.

The key of the locker is in my cupboard. Youíll find it in a round box on the upper shelf. Ladki, I had gold in kilos, now youíll find it only in grams. Whenever the need arose, it got used up. You know...

I have prepared a will in my own hand. Show it to your brother and sisters.

The daughter-in-law has a locker of her own. Whatever belongs to her, is already with her. At the time of my departure, if her mother-in-lawís gift does not reach her, I shall ask Bhavani to forgive me.

Families donít really possess all that they appear to have, to outsiders. What belongs to whom, why and how much ó the same old story! The subject of gossip among relatives.

Donít argue with anyone. All the others are complete units in themselves, only you are outside every circle. Ladki, you are bound to find yourself alone.

The daughter lights a cigarette.

With a smile - Ammu, would you like a smoke?

- Yes, but youíll have to raise my head with the help of the pillow.

- No problem.

Ammu, relishing a smoke - If your heart tells you to do something, you must go ahead and do it. It was good that I came over here. If I hadnít, I wouldíve continued to wander in the same murkiness.

The daughter, light-heartedly - Ammu, it was really difficult to lift you off the bed. Susan wasnít wrong.

- Ladki, I just wanted to move from one room to another. I canít come back from the other world to see you even if I want to. Can I?

- No, Ammu.

- Several moments are entangled in this smoke. Ladki, may I ask you something?

- Yes, Ammi.

- Whose flat is this?

- Ammu, in my absence, it is yours.

- In that case, I give it to you.

Both laugh together.

Ammu in a strange, changed voice - If you ask me, itís not a matter for laughter but for tears.

- Ammu, itís not such a big issue that one should turn laughter into wailing.

- Itís not so small either that one shouldnít think about it. I see myself in you. The picture is more or less the same, although your temperament is more like that of your fatherís family.

- Ammu, is that a virtue or a flaw?

- Ladki, itís neither a virtue nor a flaw.

- Youíve put a seal of ambiguity on it. That doesnít prove anything.

- Ladki, what will you establish by travelling alone? When you live with someone, something remains, something is washed away. If you live alone, nothing remains, nothing is washed away. Are you listening?

- Yes, Mammu.

- Ladki, a field of action surrounds a family. There a woman realises herself and perceives others. When she becomes a mother, she lives through the past, present and future. Since you are not attached to a family, you live only for yourself.

- What about the others, Ammu?

- Theyíre busy feathering their own nests.

Ladki, what you have done for this family, doesnít bring you any compensation. Only your motherís blessings.

Susan, peeping through the door - Shall we take Ammi to the other room?

- Susan, let Ammu remain here for some time. And, yes, get some cold water, ice, a lemon and two glasses. Take some rest. Iíll wake you up if I need you.

Susan places a tray on the table.

- Ladki, your room looks full.

- Ammu, because of your presence here.

The daughter squeezes the lemon into the two glasses, adds ice and fills them up with water.

Ammi looks on fixedly.

The daughter places a cushion on the pillow and provides support to her mother.

- Ammu, will you be able to hold the glass?

- Yes, Iíll hold it.

- Ammu, Cheers!

Ammu shakes her head. Taking a sip.

- Ladki, somewhere, sometime, weíll meet again. Weíll recognise each other. Even in such a wide world. You can be sure of that. No matter where the mother is and where the daughter is, and no matter who the mother is and who the daughter is ó mother and daughter will always remain mother and daughter till the end of time.

The daughter restrains her tears and continues to look at her mother. Then she fixes her gaze on the glass; empties it in one gulp; refills it.


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