The scorching midday sun could not find its way into Javal’s home. The dilapidated house was on the brink of collapse, and a cold darkness reigned in the inner room. It was an old menace, hiding between the tall clay urns that stood as tall as people. When it touched that darkness, sunlight sullied itself.
It was difficult to see in that room, but as the eyes adjusted to the darkness, the dim outline of a small cot of woven coir could be made out. It rested against a wall, beside some rags that peeped from a black pot, and sundry useless objects. From the narrow space behind the room came the sound of grain being pounded. The rhythm stopped occasionally, when someone could be heard coughing weakly.
After a while, someone tried to light the chulha, the wood-fed stove, and smoke filled the house. The darkness now seemed to quicken and became more intense. Someone pushed the door open and stepped in.
"I can’t see anything. Bai, where are you?"
Javal was trying to blow air into the smouldering fire. She came out with the blowpipe in her hand and tried to push the darkness aside with it. She murmured without much interest, "Who is it?"
"Who else ever comes?"
"Manki? Welcome, child. Sit by the clay pot," said Javal, and shading her eyes with her free hand, proceeded in the direction of the clay pot with uncertain steps. "I can’t see very well. I can’t even make out your face."
"Sit down, Bai. Listen carefully."
"Let me put the rotla on the clay pan to roast. It will take its own time, and I’m sick with hunger."
"I can’t wait. Nor can you, either to roast your rotla or eat it."
"The son of Bhagwan Mukhi is very sick. He won’t live more than a day or two."
Javal burst into a loud guffaw. Her mouth, with its few crooked, pointed teeth, made her even uglier. Her white hair was matted, her nose too big and a little askew. Her heavy lids hid her eyes so well that they were seen only momentarily, like the fleeting glimpse of water in a deep well. The sound of her laughter was unnerving. Khi Khi hi hi… Khal Khal… Khal Khal hi hi…
Manki looked at her mother in disgust. "Why do you laugh, Bai? Did you hear what I said? The son of Bhagwan Mukhi is at death’s door."
"Would that he died right away! Do you know, Manki, Bhagwan is so arrogant — he beat me black-and-blue. Just because I plucked a couple of galka growing on his hedge. He threw me to the ground and slashed at me with millet stalks. When they tie his son’s body on a bamboo stretcher, I shall laugh to my heart’s content."
"Hush, Bai! Someone might hear."
"Who can hear anything out here, on the fringe of the village? The villagers hounded me out. They would not give me a pinch of flour even if I starved to death. Damn the villagers! Why don’t they die as well, along with the son of the Mukhi?"
Manki’s face shook with fear and suppressed anger. Though twenty-seven, she had the smooth, taut face of a teenager. She did not look like the mother of three children. She had left this house as soon as she could, fearing for their safety.
she hissed in anger. She had always called her mother ‘Bai’, and could
not address her in any other way even now. "Living all alone, you
have completely lost your mind. You don’t know what can be uttered and
what cannot be. Why don’t you understand? If the Mukhi’s son dies, will
the villagers let
Javal felt the first tremors of fear. Like all living beings, she clung to life. Though she wrapped herself in rags, ate only half a rotla every third day and had buried herself in this ruin of a house, she breathed! She lived! Her brain was as desolate and lonely as her home, but at times a few thoughts entered, circling slowly like bats. She wanted to take revenge on the villagers — snatch away their belongings, eat a bellyful of food, dive and bathe in the village pond — do all that was forbidden. She also wanted to visit all her six sons who lived in the village, to beg them for a sari or a quilt — but it was not to be.
She understood that all she could do was to think about it. Sometimes, she couldn’t do even that. Manki, her youngest child, sneaked out in the dark whenever she could to bring her food and the bare necessities. She was not afraid of Javal. The other children were cowards. They were sons only in name. Never mind their mother, shouldn’t they have at least rallied around their father, who had run away one night because of the harassment of the villagers? Manki was too young when that happened, or she would have defied the villagers. She would have sat by the side of her father, held his arm and tried to explain. But would he have understood? He, too, was a coward. His sons had taken after him.
"Manki! I don’t want to die!" She wailed.
"That is why I have come to warn you… don’t you realise Ramudia’s father would kill me if he gets to know that I have come here?"
"But I haven’t done anything to the Mukhia’s son. I swear it. I will swear by anything you ask me to — I am not to blame."
"Will people believe that?"
"To hell with the people. May they die childless, may maggots eat their tongues, may they die thirsting for water…"
"Let me speak, girl! I have never harmed them, and they have tortured me all my life. They’ve driven me out of the village like an animal, Manki! They will suffer." Abruptly, Javal’s anger turned into grief. She burst into tears.
Manki stepped forward and covered her mouth. If her wails were heard, both of them would be undone. She said in a panic, "Bai! Be quiet or both of us will have to die before our time."
"Oh, Manki! I haven’t done a thing!" said Javal, her voice muffled.
"But you will not escape their vengeance if Bhagwan Bhai’s son does not get well."
For the first time, Javal was completely aware of the impending danger to her life. She murmured softly, "Cousins and other relatives may keep their distance, but even my own sons don’t want to look at me. Tell me, did anyone care to come and tell me what had happened?"
"Bai, you don’t have time to think about all that. You must slip away to my maternal uncle’s village."
"Girl, how can I go alone?"
"Pack your rags and leave the house after sunset. Walk all night in that direction. You should reach your brother’s village in the morning."
"What about this house?"
"Bai, forget these three walls. If you have anything worth saving, tuck it under your arm and start walking. Nobody will notice you in the dark. Even if someone does, no one will dare to come near you. Run away from here — go away while that boy is still alive."
Javal mused — Manki was right, but she had not seen her brother for so many years. She did not even know his family. Why should they give shelter to a strange aunt with only a few rags? If they shut their door in her face, where could she go? What would happen to her?
"Child, why don’t I go to Sukhla’s home instead tonight? I’ll lie quietly in a corner. No one will come to know."
"Will Mangi Bhabi let you into her house? Be quick, Bai, your son-in-law will come from the fields anytime now. I’ll have to get home before he does. Shall I help you pack or roast a few rotlas for you? You can take them along."
"There is hardly enough flour for one rotla, Manki. Besides, my chulha listens only to me. You won’t be able to light it. Daughter, take out whatever clothes you can find in that pot and tie them up in a bundle. Perhaps there are a couple of utensils too somewhere."
"I’ll manage. Be quick."
The two of them got busy. A kerosene lamp hung from a wooden peg in the outer corridor. As Manki reached up to take it down, she saw the faint, reddish impression of two palms. Whose hands were those? Mother’s or Mangi Bhabi’s?
Someone in the village had said that when Javal came to the village as a bride, she had looked like a queen…
She had six sons followed by a daughter, and a field in the village. She was blessed by God’s plenty. What went wrong, then? Lost in thought, Manki asked aloud, "Bai, why were you hounded by the villagers?"
"God knows. Maybe because your grandmother sent me out at night. One night, when Kania was very young, he suddenly started crying loudly. It was impossible to hush him. Your grandmother asked me to get some akda leaves. She wanted to warm them over a fire and apply them to Kania’s belly. I was so senseless, I rushed out right away. I searched for the plant, which grew near the lake, and didn’t realise that it was nearly dawn. A couple of villagers were going out to relieve themselves. They saw me plucking the leaves in the twilight. It was enough. From that day, people started saying, ‘Javal is doing black magic. She has the evil eye. Hide your children from her gaze.’ At first a few, then more, and finally everyone in the village was saying: ‘Javal is a witch! Javal is a witch!’"
"Hurry up, Bai! Finish your packing."
p. 1 p. 2
Dhiruben Patel is a poet and fiction writer. Her honours include the national Sahitya Akademi award. She lives in Bombay and writes in Gujarati and English