‘Zarina’s encounter with Mr Eastwood’, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin (detail)
‘Zarina’s encounter with Mr Eastwood’, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin (detail)
  Maniben alias Bibijaan - 2
 

  first impressions
  Vol VI : issue 3

  Cover
  Jayant Sankrityayana
  Kaushik Basu
  Altaf Tyrewala
  Shilpa Paralkar
  Parismita Singh
  Only in Print
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Shilpa Paralkar

The next day, Manu’s mother found herself telling the Muslim man about Rama, her eldest sister, who had jumped into the well on Dhanteras day. Ever since, Manu’s mother had wept silently on every Diwali. And she had been bitterly disappointed when the only child she ever had turned out to be a son. She had wanted to name him Ram, but the family she had been married into did not believe in listening to daughters-in-law.

When Manu came home that evening, he was in a belligerent mood. “I’m going on a trip with my friends. I don’t know when I shall be back. Could be a few weeks.” His mother merely nodded and went into the kitchen. Manu frowned, looking uncannily like his mother for those few seconds, and then went back to watching Who dares wins.

Over the next few days, Manu’s mother and the Muslim man unravelled a lot of memories together.

“Did I tell you about the time my Abbajaan caught his third wife slipping love notes to the butcher on a mince-stained newspaper?”

“Hey Ram. What a scandalous family yours seems to be. Meat-eaters, and now an adulteress too. But wait till you hear the story about my great-grandfather and the English mem who travelled all alone on a big ship to meet him.”

“This? I got this when I fell down from Uncle’s roof. Uttarayan, of course. Thirteen stitches. And Ammi didn’t talk to her brother for months after that.”

“You know, there was this Muslim family who lived down the lane. Whenever my sister and I walked past their house on our way to the temple, she would unfailingly throw stones over their compound wall.”

“Ya Allah, was that really you? How plump you were — how many litres of ghee did your parents feed you every day? That was Rama, wasn’t it? See, I could tell without you pointing her out.”

“When I was eight, I was determined to marry Gandhiji. I used to write him long letters in my mind.”

“I wanted to be a boxer. But Abbajaan forbade it. And just to make sure I didn’t ever bring up the topic again, he sent me off on Haj. That was the end of my boxing dreams.”

“I wanted my son to be a professor, but he’s become a schoolteacher. I suppose one should be grateful for what one gets.”

“I miss eating sheer kurma. Will you? Really?”

One day, the Muslim man hesitantly broached the topic. “You do know what’s happening outside, don’t you? That your son is part of…” Manu’s mother stiffened and looked away. Her eyes filled with terrible shadows and her fingers plucked at the hem of her sari.

After a long time, she shook her head resolutely. “No, I don’t know.”

“But…”

The Muslim was torn between venting his anger at her deliberate obtuseness and not causing her more pain. Finally, to ease his indecision, he asked her for a glass of water. When he was about to drain the glass, she stopped him with a look.

“Keep some for Nafisa.”

He broke down at that. So did she. Not noisily, like him, but with gentle harrumphing noises. Two sobs, one snort, two sobs, one snort… reminding him of the ponies in Law Garden, where he used to take Nafisa for rides, and the funny, gassy sounds they used to make. He laughed out loud despite his tears.

And decided never to mention it again.

Two other topics were not touched upon. One was Manu’s father, and the other was the Muslim man’s wife.

When Manu returned from wherever it was that he had gone to, he was a little puzzled at his mother’s behaviour. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something was not the same. He struggled to figure out what it could be.

And then he noticed it quite by accident. One evening, he jogged her arm accidentally and spilt some tea on her sari. She got him another cup and sat as usual on the bed, sewing. Idly, he ran his eyes over her sari, trying to trace the tea stains, when it struck him — her sari had little prints over it. He looked closely. They were mango-shaped and pale blue in colour. Not very noticeable, but he had never known her to wear anything other than pure white saris.

Again and again, his eyes returned to his mother’s sari. It wasn’t just the prints. He was sure of it now: something else was different. Puzzled, he looked around their small room, mentally ticking things off. The walls seemed to be OK. Also the cupboard. The bed was the same. The TV was in its place, too. It struck him only after he’d finished his tea. When he had spilt tea on her sari, she hadn’t frowned at all.

Since she was in a good mood, Manu decided this was as good a time as any to tell her. “I’m thinking of getting married.”

“To whom?”

“My shakha pramukh’s niece. Her name is Sejal Patel.” And in anticipation of her frown, he rushed on, “They are Vaishnavas too.”

“Does she work?”

“She helps organise all the shakha meets. Arranges for the pamphlet printing… things like that. But don’t worry, she knows that she will have to help you around the house.”

“And after she finishes the housework, will she go out to work or will she be home all day?”

“Well, she won’t go out unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

“So she will be home most of the time?”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t the house too small?”

Manu blinked in surprise.

“Too small? But… nothing can be done about that.”

Manu’s mother put aside her sewing and sighed.

“You’re right… nothing can be done about that. Well, I suppose the four of us will just have to manage.”

Manu watched his mother’s frail figure as she  slowly walked past him into the kitchen. He hadn’t realised that she was getting so old. Now, she had forgotten how to count. Eventually, she would start forgetting names and what not.

He was suddenly glad that he had decided to get married. Poor thing. She could do with some help.

p. 1 p. 2

 
Shilpa Paralkar worked briefly in advertising. Originally from Bombay, she now lives in Bangalore.
This is her first published story (2003)