It was around ten in the morning
when Poshikuj came into the courtyard to sit in the sun. Half the courtyard was
paved in brick and the other half was turf. Around the turf were flower-beds.
Potted plants decked the paved part and flowering creepers hung from the roof of
the house. Saaba was the pet name of Poshikuj's younger son Surendranath, who
had been allotted a nice 'D-II' type Government house in Sarojini Nagar. On the
ground floor were the drawing room, bed-room and kitchen. An open space in front
of the kitchen had been converted into a dining room with a table and chairs. A
toilet, bathroom and two bedrooms were on the first floor. There was a terrace
and a Barsati on top.
Surendranath had gone to England on
scholarship for higher studies, and it was there that he had found a job in the
Indian High Commission. He had been transferred to Delhi three years back,
posted to the Ministry of External Affairs on a post of some importance, earning
around a thousand rupees per month. He had been married before going to England,
which was a matter of some regret to Poshikuj. Had he been unmarried before
going abroad and landing this plum Job, what a catch he would have been! The
richest and the noblest of the land would have been begging before Poshkuj now!
But what was written down in fate could not be undone, so she never let anyone
suspect this secret sorrow of hers.
Poshikuj sunned herself to her
heart's content in the lawn, feeling the warmth seep into the sinews of her neck
and back, relaxing them. It seemed that her rheumatism from Kashmir was all
gone. She looked up to the sky. Its glassy blue pleased her very much. On the
upper balcony she could see the washing that Chhoti had hung out to dry. How
they shone in the bright sun! The foreign machine was certainly a boon. Chhoti
could not have taken more than five minutes to finish the washing and yet how
sparklingly clean the clothes looked! Suddenly her train of thought was
disrupted when she happened to see Chhoti's undergarments among the washing. And
she blushed with embarrassment. Oh God, what must the neighbours think of such
immodesty? She got up and began to pace the courtyard. On an impulse she went
and plucked some flowers, gathering them in the 'palloo' of her sari. She
would take Chhoti along and go to a temple, perhaps the Birla Mandir. They say
it was a worthwhile sight to see. It would not take them too long, half an hour
at the most. They would be back before lunch. She went in, put the flowers from
her sari 'palloo' on the dining table and sat in a chair, waiting for Chhoti to
come downstairs. How long she takes! Must have been in the bathroom for more
than an hour now. God only knows what all she rubs on that body of hers. Coming
to Delhi has certainly changed her, all restraint and propriety forgotten. But
still, you had to admit, she is a thousand times better than that fishwife!
After a while, she heard the
bathroom door open and Chhoti came clattering down the stairs. She wore fresh
clothes - a crisp sari and a matching blouse. Her hair was not done yet, but
still she looked better now, not floating around in a gown as she was earlier,
"Oh no, Mataji! What have you
done?", the sight of the flowers on the table drew a cry from Chhoti.
Poshikuj was stunned - she knew she had done something she shouldn't have.
"Why did you pluck these
flowers from the garden? Particularly these hollyhocks?", there was a tinge
of anger in Chhoti's sense of loss.
Her daughter-in-law's sharp rebuke
hurt like death. And all for just a few flowers! How the woman preens herself on
her new sophistication. There I was just 'Kakni' and here she has elevated me
into 'Mataji! Mataji Shit! But swallowing her fury, she said in a low voice,
"I thought we could go to the temple."
"You should have told me first.
There is no temple in this location, nor anywhere near. The places close are the
Ashoka Hotel and Chanakyapuri."
"What is that?"
"Oh you wouldn't understand.
Come, let us go and sit in the sun." Poshikuj was stung - she seemed to be
on fire from top to toe. This daughter of the notoriously stupid Govinda
understands, and I wouldn't? The cheek! She needs to be put in her place. Asking
for it, she is, otherwise she will walk all over me. No, I must assert myself.
"Do you take me for a complete
fool? Don't I know about the Birla temple here, where people throng from all
over the place?"
"Birla Temple is very far away
from here. Farther even than Connaught Place and Gole Market, it is."
Poshikuj did not believe her. It was
only the other day when she had seen something like a temple in the distant
western horizon where the sun sets. It had blue domes. She was sure in her heart
that this must be the famous Birla Temple. She fumed to her daughter-in-law with
a determined look and said, "Then what temple is it that can be seen from
the terrace? The one with those blue domes? The cleaning woman also told me that
that was the Birla Temple."
"What does the cleaning woman
know, Mataji? That building is neither a temple nor a mosque, it is the
Pakistani Embassy - Pakistani office, as they say."
Poshikuj was revolted at this
explanation from her daughter-in-law. What a fool this woman takes me for! The
brazen lie! No one dares to openly mention the word "Pakistan"
in Kashmir, even though there are only Muslims around. And she would have me
believe that there is a Pakistani office in Delhi, where there are only Pandits
everywhere? What a cock and bull story this daughter-in-law of mine is cooking
up! But who can argue with a shameless liar? Poshikuj restrained herself, not
wanting to get into a fracas with this one and have another scene like the ones
with that fishwife. She had no strength to deal with viragoes-silence was golden
at such an occasion, she told herself.
It was around twelves Chhoti lit the gas and made rotis.
Then she warmed the vegetables which had already been done in the pressure
cooker in the morning. She laid the table and placed two tumblers of water on
it. She sliced some onions in a plate and squeezed a lemon from the fridge on
them. Poshikuj saw the preparations for the meal and said, "Don't set a
place for me on the table, I am not having your 'lunch'."
"But why? Do you want to
"Why should I fast? Let the
plates be. Give me my roti in the small basin and I'll have it here, on the
floor", saying this, she went up to her room and brought down the rag of a
curry her bedding from Kashmir had come wrapped in. She spread it on the floor.
Chhoti merely looked at her and brought had a dozen rotis in a small basin, the
vegetables in a small bowl. Poshikuj took out a small towel from her petticoat
pocket, spread it out and laid the bowl on it. The basin she held in her lap and
began to eat with relish.
The meal over, Chhoti went up to her
room. She came down after about an hour, dressed up and hair done smartly.
"I am going to Miss Kapoor's. I shall be back by three o'clock", she
Poshlku, did not reply, but her
silence made no impact on Chhoti. She merely looked at her watch and left.
Poshikuj felt rebuffed. But she told herself not to mind, who was she to stop
her? Let her do what she will.
She went back to the garden. The
warmth of the sun soothed her ruffled feelings. One could give anything for this
lovely winter sunshine! To tell the truth, this was the only worthwhile thing
here, she thought. She pulled her sari up and began to scratch her leg. Her eye
fell on her feet and she saw the chapped skin and cracked heels. God damn the
winter there! How it ruins one's hands and feet! And then she thought of Bittu
and groaned. The poor wretch! His chilblains had turned into suppurating sores.
How many times I warned that witch to take better care of her son - make
him wear warm socks and fur shoes, I used to tell her a hundred times. But would
she ever listen? But then, a fur shoe does cost a pretty penny. And what is poor
Gasha's salary, after all? Barely enough to make two ends meet. Come to think of
it, he doesn't have an overcoat to wear. How he must shiver in the cold outside!
It is all a matter of luck, nothing else. She heaved a sigh.
Poshikuj looked around at the flats.
All was silence. No one in sight, as if everybody was dead. Aren't neighbours
supposed to interact with one another all the time? But here they might as well
be living in different countries, completely oblivious of one another! But even
if they did mix, how would she understand their foreign gibberish? Besides, the
names of these women are equally strange: one is 'Mrs Jain, another 'Mrs
Sunder,' a third calls herself, 'Mrs Prakash' and still another is Mrs
Something! Just look at this Sikh woman next door. Her daughter-in-law must be
my age but still she is called 'Mrs Khem Singh' - God knows what this 'Mrs'
means? Well, this city may have something to it, but frankly, what
does it have?
She heard the rumble of a scooter,
and knew Saaba was back. He came in and asked her, " How was your day, Ma ?
"I am all right, son, May God
shower prosperity on you."
Saaba went up to his room but came
back immediately. "Where is she?" he asked Poshikuj.
"She said she was going to see
"Which Mrs. Kapoor?"
"The same who does all those
things to her hair, I mean the one who is rather fair and slim."
"You mean Miss Kapoor."
"That is what I said."
Saaba burst into laughter, "You
never said that. It is Miss Kapoor, meaning Kapoor Sahib's daughter. You called
her Mrs. Kapoor, which would make her his wife!"
"Let her go to hell for all I
care! How should I know these subtleties ?"
"You will have to learn these
subtleties now that you are staying here," Saaba turned to go up but
Poshikuj stopped him with, "How come Chhoti is so close to this Kapoor
woman? I do not quite approve of her ways, let me tell you."
"Oh come on, she is all right.
How does it matter? We have to watch our own interest, that is all."
"What is that supposed to
"It means that her father is a
big officer in All India Radio and that Chhoti is trying for a Job there."
"What do you mean? Do you want
your wife also to work now? Is not your big salary large enough?"
"It is not a question of money
alone. She gets so bored here, it would be a good change for her. And then, if
your income increases, is there any harm in it? There are so many needs and
expenses, you know. We have a radio, yet no T.V. We have a scooter, but no
"You are just being
Saaba merely laughed. His glance
fell on the curry and he asked, "Who spread this rag on the floor?"
Poshikuj could feel that Saaba was
angry. Softy she said, "I did."
"I find it difficult to eat,
seated in a chair at the table, son."
Saaba said nothing. Soon after,
Chhoti returned and he took her aside and the two had a brief consultation with
each other. After that they had tea. Then they called a cab and taking Poshikuj
along, went to Chandni Chowk. Here they bought a steel thali, a wooden Chowki
and a pair of chappals, a voile 'Chikan' sari and a small Shiva idol for her.
Once home they served her food in the steel 'thali'.
That night Poshikuj could not sleep
at all. All kinds of thoughts kept coming in her mind, leaving her restless. So
they are thinking of buying a car. What luck for this daughter of Govinda the
idiot ! Well, you had to say that she has brought luck to our family. On the
other hand, there is that wretched one, bringing nothing but misfortune to home
and hearth! God knows whether Gasha bought a bicycle or not? He was saying that
if available on instalments, he would certainly get one. The poor fellow has
worn his feet out, trudging from Rainawari to his office every day.
Come to think of it, a quilt is too
heavy for the weather here. God knows how cold it must be there. I will ask
Saaba to write to Gasha - he must not stay too late. To hell with that Jawahar
Nagar tuition work, God forbid if anything should happen to him, we won't be
worth a penny. ----
Just think of all that abundance of
things available at Chandni Chowk! How many clothes! Such perfect outfits for
Bittu. If I had been carrying my own money, I could have bought something for
him. Well, if I ever go again I will definitely get a shirt and shorts for Bittu
- and a hockey ball. I must also get bangles for the girls next door. And that
fishwife must also have a sari or something. Of course, if God should spare me,
Saaba will keep me in luxury. He was telling me that he would take me to Hardwar
next month. How keen that departed one was to go to Hardwar! But even after
death, he could only reach Shadipur. How could poor Gasha afford those five, six
hundred rupees for the journey all the way to Hardwar? Had Saaba been here,
things would have been different.
So there are Muslims here too! All
those burqa-walis in Chandni Chowk. Would they also be feeling the same fear
here that is always there?
She heard the door of Saaba's room
open and someone walked on the cement floor with rapid steps, Poshikuj
recognized the footsteps. After a while there was the sound of the bathroom
flush. Curse the woman's bowels, Poshikuj commented to herself, but what could
you expect, after consuming gallons of that dal with rice in the evening? The
roar of the flush must have woken up the whole neighbourhood. Why, she should
have had it broadcast from the radio! Isn't that the place where she is supposed
to be working now?
As the dawn broke, Poshikuj left her
bed, went to the toilet, had a bath, and came back to her room. Wrapping a
blanket around herself, seating the Shiva idol in front, she began to chant a
bhajan. She knew bits of the Shiva Mahima Stotra and recited them too. Her
prayers over, she went up to the terrace and sat in the sun. The sky here seemed
much wider, it was not like the bounded sky of Kashmir, mountains all
around and a tiny patch of sky in the middle. Perhaps it was due to this
unbounded expanse of sky that people's vision also widened here, material
prosperity must uncloud mulds too. One loves to have baths here, so easy to keep
oneself clean and tidy. Her thoughts were interrupted by Saaba's call, and she
came down. The table was set with cups and saucers, bread and eggs. Saaba, was
wearing dressing gown, reading the newspaper. Chhoti came in from the kitchen
carrying a tea-pot. She was in a gown-like garment, her hair tied with something
that looked like a strip of red cloth. Placing the tea-pot on the table, she
went to the fridge and brought out butter and strawberry jam, both of which she
proceeded to apply to the bread. Poshikuj ate a couple of slices of bread with
her tea. She other two had eggs too. Watching them, particularly Chhoti, eating
the eggs made Poshikuj think of Bittu. How thin the poor thing was, yet not even
a cup of milk was available for him. If that, mother of his had allowed him to
come with me, his health would certainly have improved in this winter sunshine.
The tea over, Saaba went to his
room. Dumping the cups and plates in the slim for the 'Lila' to wash, Chhoti
followed. After some time both reappeared, spruced up, smartly dressed. Poshikuj
gave them an appraising look.
"I am leaving for office Ma,
and she will come with me up to the market. I will help her buy the meat",
said Saaba and pushed the scooter outside. He sat on it, with Chhoti on the
pillion. She put her right hand on his shoulder. Phut, Phut, Phut went the
scooter, speeding on the road.
Would Gasha have purchased the
bicycle after all? I could have given him the fifty-sixty rupees I have, to help
him out. I could send them to him. Poshikuj was lost in these thoughts when
suddenly Miss Kapoor materialized before her. After saying namaskar she asked in
Hindi. "Mrs. Bhan is at home?" Poshikuj understood the question and
replied in her broken Hindi, "market - get meat".
Miss Kapoor smiled. Poshikuj did not
like her smile. Indifferently, she said, "Sit - she come soon". But
Miss Kapoor did not sit with her, she went into the drawing room instead, sat on
a sofa as if she owned the place.
"What does the bitch want
here?", Poshikuj said to herself and shrugging for shoulders went to the
lawn to sit in the sun. Chhoti returned with her shopping and Poshikuj told her,
"There is someone waiting for you inside. Mrs. Kapoor, it is."
"Mataji, not Mrs. Kapoor, it is Miss
"All right, Miss Kapoor let it
be! One speaks to her normally and she laughs at one in return!"
"You must have misunderstood.
The poor thing is not that sort", saying this, she too went into the
Her daughter-in-law did not believe
her. This hurt Poshikuj deeply. But it was her own fault, intervening without
rhyme or reason. The couple think no end of the bitch. No wonder they do,
considering they need a favour from her father. Miss Kapoor, indeed! God knows
how many men she must be intimate with, and she is still a Miss, Poshikuj
snorted to herself.
Warmed by the sun, Poshikuj had
began to doze when a burst of laughter from the drawing room made her sit up.
They were laughing at her, she knew. The mortification was worse than death.
She would not stay here long. She
must soon find someone to go back to Kashmir with. She could leave within the
next few days in that case. And if she could, the only thing she would carry
back with her, would be heaps of this winter sunshine!