|Maniben alias Bibijaan|
The next day, Manuís mother found herself telling the Muslim man about Rama, her eldest sister, who had jumped into the well on Dhanteras day. Ever since, Manuís 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. "Iím going on a trip with my friends. I donít 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, Manuís 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 Uncleís roof. Uttarayan, of course. Thirteen stitches. And Ammi didnít 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 ó how many litres of ghee did your parents feed you every day? That was Rama, wasnít 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 didnít 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 heís 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 whatís happening outside, donít you? That your son is part ofÖ" Manuís 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 donít know."
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 snortÖ 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 Manuís father, and the other was the Muslim manís wife.
When Manu returned from wherever it was that he had gone to, he was a little puzzled at his motherís behaviour. He couldnít 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 ó 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 motherís sari. It wasnít 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 heíd finished his tea. When he had spilt tea on her sari, she hadnít frowned at all.
Since she was in a good mood, Manu decided this was as good a time as any to tell her. "Iím thinking of getting married."
"My shakha pramukhís 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 printingÖ things like that. But donít 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 wonít go out unless itís absolutely necessary."
"So she will be home most of the time?"
"Isnít the house too small?"
Manu blinked in surprise.
"Too small? ButÖ nothing can be done about that."
Manuís mother put aside her sewing and sighed.
"Youíre rightÖ nothing can be done about that. Well, I suppose the four of us will just have to manage."
Manu watched his motherís frail figure as she slowly walked past him into the kitchen. He hadnít 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.
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Shilpa Paralkar, a new writer, is an advertising professional and lives in Bangalore