As a child, Shanti had instinctively sensed Raju’s apprehension whenever he came to their house. Her Pitaji treated the boy with contempt, as if he had just caught him in the act doing something forbidden. She even remembered him giving the boy an undeserved clip on the ear on occasions. He always had a sneer on his lips, dauntingly suspicious eyes, which, immediately must have dampened the boy’s obvious bold spirits. So what were you doing the other day when I caught you lurking behind that neem tree? Were you thieving again? He never even let the boy answer. He would just purse his lips and nod knowingly in a manner calculated to frighten the child, although she noticed that the boy was not all that troubled. Or, I suppose that rascal Parsad thinks this rotting Bhetki is worth two pise. He s-s-said four pise, Seth Ishwarlal, the poor boy would stutter, looking away. It took some guts to do that, she thought. Father would bellow with laughter. One whole anna? Why not a rupiah? These people, he would say, to an invisible presence above his head, just bend down and pick fish you put in the sea, and then the man has the gall to want one whole anna, ya Bhagwan, the badmash will ruin me! And he would give the boy two pise and turn his back and walk away. The boy would stare at the coins, and for a whole minute he would just stay there, unwilling to leave without the one anna that Baba had mentioned. He would grudgingly walk away, stopping every now and then, looking back in the vain hope that the rich man would have changed his mind. He was always an optimist. Pitaji’s attitude left the young Shanti perplexed, for she knew that he was a loving father and an honest man. Still it must be true that if one were not careful people took advantage of one’s kindness. She had often heard him tell Ma that people often mistook kindness for stupidity.
Shanti who loved skipping would watch from behind a jackfruit tree in silence, her rope dangling in her hands. Raju did not dare raise his head in her direction, no doubt for fear of having his ear pulled by the irate zamindar. She certainly believed the saying that poor kids would have been better off if they were born with an extra ear put there just for pulling. Still the boy was not easily daunted, and would often sneak a furtive look in her direction. He obviously liked what he saw, and she rightly suspected that her tiny little person was what made the weekly visit bearable to the boy. She was not sure if she was pleased or not that Raju seemed to like her, or whether, on the contrary, she should be annoyed with him for daring to have a soft spot for someone who was so much above his own station. Yes, she was a haughty little minx then.
For Raju, the visit to the rich zamindar’s gradually transformed itself from what, to begin with, was just a bearable chore, into a desirable interlude, and from there, it progressed to something which had become a gnawing imperative. On his way home, if he had caught a glimpse of the rich girl, (Raju would tell her later when they were married) he would put the recent humiliation at the back of his mind, and skip and whistle merrily, danced round trees, dreaming the impossible dream. If this was a fairy tale, Shanti would have been smitten by the boy too, and the two would find the opportunity of playing together, running round the jackfruit tree, holding hands, maybe singing a duo, admiring their images in the limpid pond. In spite of her reservations, Shanti could not help liking the boy’s laughing eyes, but she thought that he was uncouth and could do with a bath. She could never entirely believe her Pitaji who said that the boy’s father was an extortionate fish seller, out to ruin him.
However when a few years later Pitaji told her that he was arranging for him to marry Raju, her initial reaction was one of surprise rather than shock. She never understood how the man that she had finally discovered to be a proud and haughty boor, a bully, could contemplate marrying his daughter to someone who possessed nothing, but understood that it was her mother Radha’s doing. She had scrutinised all the eligible young men in the village, and although Raju was a near pauper, she had recognised in him the qualities which she felt would make him an ideal husband for her daughter. Besides she knew that he came from a more distinguished family than Ishwarlal’s or hers, and ancestry was not something to be sneezed at. Naturally Ma thought that money was very important too, but she used to say that a poor man can become rich one day, and vice versa. However, a visit from Raju’s aunt Umma was what was needed to start the marital ball rolling. From what Radha had heard, Raju had the potential to make his way into the world, all he needed was the opportunity. Everybody she had talked to said that he was a polite, intelligent and dependable young man. She had cleverly poured that notion into Ishwarlal’s ears, and, like many an astute wife, she had succeeded in making him believe that it was his idea. She got a lot of satisfaction when she later heard her man explain to surprised friends and relatives his reason for picking the penniless Parsad’s boy for his Shanti. I would not be where I am today if I was not the most astute man in Roshankhali, she heard him boasting. I have enquired about all the young men in the area, and found out that young Raju Varma is the hardest working of the lot. He is an ambitious young fellow, comes from one of the top families in the whole of Bihar, his grandfather was a poet you know, and I therefore have every reason to expect him to do well in time. In the end class will tell… always, bilkul. I see him as an investment who will bring in big dividends. She did not mind him passing her ideas off as his own. A wife knows and accepts her husband’s weaknesses. She is never surprised by anything he does or says. She sees him naked, hears him farting, smells his breath first thing in the morning. She knew that many a woman, like herself, gets untold satisfaction when she watches the bullying husband snore and dribble helplessly just before he wakes up.
Shanti knew that the boy had always been enamoured of her, but she had never been a dreamer, had never had a crush on anybody like some of her friends, had never questioned herself about the suitability of such and such young swain. She had reservations about marrying a man who could barely scratch a living, but she agreed to the union cheerfully — not that she had much say in the matter, but she knew that Ma thought he was a good prospect and she trusted her judgement as she never trusted Pitaji’s. She caught herself once thinking that if Raju is the opposite of Pitaji, he can’t be that bad.
Of course she had seen Raju around at all the stages of his life and liked his cheerful disposition. She did not dislike his appearance or his wiry frame, or the fact that he wore drab dhotis and darned shirts. Her mother Radha often said that poverty was often a temporary condition not a vice. She had regretted that he was a bit on the small side, but he was all muscles and energy. Could that mean that deep down she had already been half in love with him as a youth? Who knows? Moreover she had heard from servants and friends that her intended was well-liked and highly thought of by everybody. He was polite without being obsequious, funny without being disrespectful. They said he was fearless and was not afraid of tigers and crocodiles, and knew about medicinal plants. Certainly even the shrewd Ishwarlal had finally thought him good enough to be his son-in-law. She had been told that even older people sought his advice on diverse matters. The few negative things that she had heard about him seemed insignificant. Some said that he was always making jokes, that even at funerals he sometimes made people laugh by whispering stories about how the poor dead man used to scratch his bum or how pathetic he was at hiding it when he farted, or how he had a squeaky effeminate voice. One or two voices were heard suggesting that his reputation for fearlessness was entirely based on his own boastful accounts of imaginary encounters with Dakshin Rai.
When she did fantasise about an eventual beau, she could not help invoking the image of someone who was basically Raju, had the same features, but was rather taller, fairer, and dressed in fine clothes. No, she had not disapproved of him. She was not overly apprehensive about the impending wedding, but then neither did she count the days. Girls, like beggars could not be choosers.
But things had not worked out like Ishwarlal had planned. First, Raju’s Phoopi Umma had warned against their moving to a house the prospective father-in-law was planning to build for them. He will end up by putting your soul in his pocket if you let him, were her words, and Raju readily agreed with her. He decided to spend all his savings and some money the hakeem, who had no children of his own, had forced him to accept, and all his spare time, on improving the house Baba had built, to make it fit to receive a princess bride from a rich family.
Ishwarlal could not believe his ears when he heard that an offer he had made out of the kindness of his heart had been spurned by those paupers who did not even possess the skin on their arses! There was no love lost between him and Parsad’s sister. That wretched woman is always watering my fields with sea water, he cried. The fact that Raju refused to play the son-in-law game, the astute Radha said, proves that he has got character, didn’t her husband agree? The next day she heard him say to a visitor that he thought that his future son-in-law was a boy of character. Can you imagine a young man who refuses to move in his his father-in-law’s house?
Raju turned down Ishwarlal’s offer to work for him too, hating the idea of being the ox pulling his father-in-law’s cart. This was one stick in his spoke too many. Radha was unable to pacify him this time, he flew into a violent rage and said that it was her fault, suddenly remembering that it was her idea that their daughter should marry that boy who went around in rags. He swore that he would not lift a finger to help them even if they were starving. Raju was heartened when he discovered that Shanti had not disapproved of his independence.
Raju would always harbour a lingering suspicion that deep down she was disappointed in him because he was not able to provide for her in the manner to which she had no doubt been accustomed, growing up in the household of the richest man in the Sundarbans, although he never gave up the hope that some day he would be able to match his opulence.
However, soon after the marriage, it was discovered that the land everybody thought was Ishwarlal’s had been illegally occupied. There were many irregularities in the papers. The British East India Company was not going to accept any more nonsense from the natives. They had to respect their land laws, buy their land formally, pay the diwani taxes, or else move out. Shanti’s brother Mohan was becoming more and more erratic and unreasonable, claiming that he heard voices ordering him to go beat the cows with a stick and break their legs, or to set fire to the barn. The Pandit said that he was possessed by some evil spirit, and that getting rid of it would be a lengthy and costly affair. Preoccupied by more earthly problems, the distraught father did not know where to run, earning him constant rebuke from Radha, that he did not care for anything but money. He began by relinquishing some of the best pastures that the Company demanded. Then he had to sell some of his cattle, and never attended to Mohan’s problem.
However, for the newlyweds, this was a period of bliss as they got to discover each other. Shortly after the wedding, two children were born in quick succession. Raju had always called the girl by the nickname of Sundari because to him she was the prettiest little girl on earth, a miniature Shanti. The boy, Pradeep, was born eleven months later. Ishwarlal had now practically gone bankrupt. After threatening to hang himself or go throw himself in the Matla, and watch the ungrateful Radha make a living by begging in the village, he finally compromised and took the family back to Allapur instead. Shanti missed her mother, but took their departure without undue grief. From the beginning of married life, she had been dazzled by the extent of Raju’s love for her. He could not keep his eyes from her, extolling her virtues to everybody. She never knew she had so many qualities! It was like worship, it made her feel like a goddess. Radha had smiled and told her to enjoy the moment, for it never lasted more than six months. Still, they had now been married six years, and his adoration never waned. On her part, she was undemonstrative, but deep down, she too worshipped her man, thought that he was the kindest man she knew, was almost devoid of real malice, although he often said outrageous things about some people. Yes, he thought that he knew everything, hated to be in the wrong, but didn’t all men? Even the weak-minded Mohan who could not tell his right hand from his left foot, did not hesitate to lecture her and Ma.
Raju did not doubt that she loved him very much too, but he wished that she would be more demonstrative, that she would laugh more when he was being funny, say flattering things about him to the children. He was always saying things like, isn’t your mother as beautiful as a peri, doesn’t she cook like a Maharajah’s bhandari? Being a demonstrative person himself, he imagined that her restraint was due to a less than blind devotion on her part. He suspected that she was disappointed because he could barely provide for her and the two little ones. One of his idle thoughts was that she was just that little bit jealous of the unbounded love the little ones had for him. It was true that she was just that little bit jealous of their joy as they recognised the speck on the horizon, being no other than their dear Baba, as they stood outside the little hut, open-mouthed, watching it grow bigger as it passed the three coconut palms and assume his shape.
The three of them were her whole universe, but she did not feel the need to climb on the roof of the house to shout this information to the world. Still her great love for him did not stop her being less than enthusiastic about his capacity for work. He was not what she would call lazy, sometimes he would come back from the fields or from a trip in a state of near exhaustion. He could be counted upon to deliver the goods, but when he had the occasion to sit and smoke his bidi, on which he pulled with loving intensity, joking with Jayant or some other mates, he often forgot himself. He himself was always taken aback by the duration of his bidi break. I never realised I took so long, he would say, smacking his forehead with the palm of his right hand. Can we afford for him to smoke? Shanti sometimes asked herself, not daring to question her man. If she asked him to mend a chair or cut some wood, his stock response was, not just yet, Rani, in a short while, and again it would be the bidi. He would forget himself for hours sitting under the jackfruit tree like in a trance, sucking on that stinking thing. He was not a drunkard, he did not partake of the toddy, one lota after another, but he loved to sip one slowly every afternoon. She could never understand why men needed to fill their insides with smoke, and crave for a drink which tasted like paraffin. As a teenager, intrigued by father’s attachment to the weed, she had found a smouldering bidi once, and as there was nobody around, she had put it in her mouth and inhaled deeply. She thought she was going to choke to death. There was nothing the least bit pleasant about the smoke. She had thought that maybe it would be aromatic and nice-tasting, and found that it was nothing of the sort, it was acrid and she compared the experience to that of having to swallow a spoonful of castor oil every two months. She would never even dream of tasting toddy, its smell was enough to put her off. But she never questioned him. She had grown up in a family of men, an authoritative father and two brothers. All those years, she had wrongly thought of her mother as a dormouse who never questioned her menfolk. Arrey, she would say to herself finally, all men need their bidis, why am I such a drag?
At that time, Sukhdeo had become the legal owner of the fields, having been able to pay the Company what they demanded, and with Ishwarlal out of the frame, he was now the richest man in Roshankhali. He owned several fields rented out to tenant farmers, including Raju. He produced crops according to the boss’ directive, kept a small percentage for themselves but gave the bulk of the harvest to him as rental. He kept a close watch over his crofters, did Sukhdeo, since the more they produced, the bigger were his profits. The tenants were expected to be at the zamindar’s disposal for so many days a week, leaving their wives to work on their own patch, so they could work on his much bigger plantations. Sometimes, when he knew that the boss was not going to be around, instead of tending the tomatoes and baiguns, Raju would leave her to work on the fields by herself, quietly take a day off, embark the children on the boat and go fishing with them round the islands, although he caught but few fish. Shanti knew that fishing was just a pretext. All he wanted to do was laze about in his boat, sail aimlessly, talk non-stop to the kids, showing them the mangrove plants and gharials. And she would shake her head and have a quiet chuckle. OK, he would concede, today we didn’t catch any, but how many birds we saw, tell mama, kids. And the boy would make a long list which usually included the chai, the kokil, but it was the colourful parrots in full flight that they dreamt of catching sight of. Shanti was always apprehensive because of what happened to Baba Parsad. Everybody knew that tigers could swim, and were known to attack boatmen. Surprisingly, Raju seemed to bear no grudge to Dakshin Rai. He maintained that he had eaten his Baba by mistake, and that he had promised to make amends by leaving his descendants well alone. How did he know this? she had asked. He had laughed. Dakshin comes to me in my dreams and talks to me, he had explained, he apologised to me with tears in his eyes. At other times, he maintained that as a child, there was a tiger who had befriended him, and played with him. In any case, if there was some unforeseen danger, a noor, a special light, came out of his eyes, a gift of the saintly Parvatti, and this made the danger disappear. In any case, tigers are not really dangerous, he said, they want to be our friends, but everybody avoids them. Wouldn’t you be angry if you wanted to be friends with someone and they avoided you? They’ve got feelings too, and if you hurt their feelings, how do you expect them to act? Shanti understood that Raju had carefully thought out this seeming piece of nonsense. He knew about the danger of tigers all right, but he had to make a living in this dangerous environment, and his bravado was just an act, to stop her fretting whenever he was away.
What worried her, was that the mangrove was known to be haunted by snakes, and rats, scorpions, spiders, poisonous plants, marshes which will swallow a grown man in seconds. But they will never attack me, he would explain with great conviction, giving one of his oft repeated reasons. Yes, Shanti thought wryly, he does talk too much, and a lot of nonsense too sometimes. Of course she lived in fear of a tragedy happening at the mangrove, for the simple reason that her man was so relaxed. Every time he had to go to Calcutta or the Pargannas with a load of produce for the zamindar, she had sleepless nights imagining an encounter with his so-called friends. It’s not the fault of the tiger, it was Bhagwan who gave him strong teeth…
Raju never stopped reminding her that Parvatti had died after giving birth to him, and that after his father’s accident, it was Phoopi Umma who had made sure they never went hungry. Given to romanticising, one day he declared that he knew for sure that the old aunt went hungry herself when there was not enough, so he could have a full stomach. She must have, he said with great conviction, when he recognised the scepticism in her eyes. She knew that in the Sundarbans, rain or shine, it was next to impossible to go hungry. There were so many edible leaves, roots, nuts, fruits, and, more interestingly, fish or shrimps. Every now and then he would embroider on the theme of Phoopi’s selflessness, but although she did not like to contradict him, she did not believe everything he said, for she could not imagine the dignified woman sneaking into some rich homestead stealing eggs from the chicken coops or milking a cow in a field for her nephew. But she had no doubt that in time Raju would make up more and more glorious exploits of the old woman who would, like Parvatti, end up a Devta, a Goddess. But it was true that she knew how to sew and knit. Unfortunately there was little demand for knitwear, so she made a few pise, or a handful of rice or dal by darning rags for the villagers who were not much better-off than herself. She was quite an expert at coaxing Bagda Chingris from the mud too. Although she had not known her all that much, the intensity of Raju’s love for the old woman had been enough to colour her judgement of her. She would have tears in her eyes whenever he began talking about her.
Shanti had known all along that life with Raju was not going to be all falooda and Ghulab Jamun, but she never complained, in the belief that one day her new husband would end up rich and prosperous. Everybody said he would, Ma, family friends, even her hard-nosed Pitaji who never forgave Raju his independent spirit. After she married, there had been good times and bad times. Sometimes there had been good harvests, sometimes the monsoon ruined everything. Who can explain the sea? Sometimes the waters teemed with fish. You throw in your net and pull it up, and it shone like a gigantic pulsating silver jewel, but there were times when the fish simply disappeared. Who can explain people’s tastes? Sometimes people wanted to eat fish and there were times when it seemed nobody cared for even the best hilsa.
Although she had led a life of luxury in her palatial wooden house with glass windows, painted doors and corrugated iron roofs, surrounded by servants, malis to look after the garden, dhobis to wash their clothes, and bandharis to cook their food, never having to do any sort of hard work herself, once married she had to go down on her knees to wash and scrub, till the land with a spade, water the shoots, and she did all that without complaining. To her surprise, she found physical work stimulating. As a child it was her ambition to learn to milk a cow, but of course she was never allowed to. They had acquired a cow and a few goats just after they married, and Phoopi had taught her to milk them. The goats had died since, and the cow had been sold when a child was dangerously ill, and there were too many people chasing too little honey. There had been more lean years than years of plenty, but still they never went hungry, mainly because she was good at housekeeping, knowing how to use yesterday’s leftovers to enhance today’s meagre fare, making acchar, pickling extra vegetables or fish in times of plenty, so no one went hungry when there were shortages.
Raju was a good, kind man, she wanted no one else, but he was worse than that rooster, always wanting to do horizontal exercises, as he put it. Not that she minded, although it had taken her some time to get used to that. She had to admit that she caught herself more and more often, anticipating a little… eh… exercise herself. But of course women had no right to expect things like that, you submitted to your husband’s demands, and if you had some pleasure, so much the better. However, that was not how Raju saw things. Me, I do not feel pleasure if my woman behaves as if my ministrations were a prelude to yawning. At first she had tried hard to keep her own feelings under wraps. It had seemed unladylike to do what had to be done in other than perfect silence, but inevitably she forgot herself and dropped her guard, and too late caught herself resonating with his hoos and haas, which had made Raju so ecstatic. Good, that’s so much more fun, he had said. He often boasted that no one he knew was better in bed than him. He never explained how he knew, and she did not ask, but she believed him.
Pitaji, was a stout dark man with an oval head tapering upwards, reminiscent of a coconut. He had a darker patch like a scar on his forehead, and people called him the pahelwan on account of his bulk, but it was more flab than sinew. He had a black toothbrush moustache, unsullied by the slightest trace of grey, which he got Radha to trim for him everyday. For a man of his size, his voice was surprisingly high-pitched, but he was tough and hard-hearted, and in his pursuit of lucre, he was ruthless, although his daughter had refused to see this first. She had not missed him when the family went back to Bihar. Ma was altogether different. She had a fair complexion of which she was very proud, and often sighed that it was a shame her daughter had inherited her father’s skin colour.
Now the sun was not going to be long setting, and the kids’ father wasn’t home yet. He had gone to Sonarkhali to work on Sukhdeo’s fields today. The little ones were getting excited, and already they had asked a few times when their Baba was going to be home. How do I know? she had snapped, do I have eyes at the back of my head? She knew that even with eyes at the back of her head she still wouldn’t be any the wiser, but that was what you said when your kids pestered you, and when you yourself were fretting. Arrey, Rani, don’t be hard on little children, he would admonish her softly when he heard her snap at the little ones. She never answered back, but her inner voice provided some solace. You’re never around to put up with them, constantly talking or pulling on my sari, wanting this or that, so you can talk! But it was true that he never raised his voice to them, answering all their questions, telling them stories, making them laugh their silly little heads off. Yes, he was a good father and a good husband. A good man! The children were really very reasonable, if they were better behaved, she would begin to wonder whether there wasn’t anything wrong with them. She wished she would be less impatient with them. Raju told them that if they had been good nine times, it was all right to be a lee..ttle naughty the tenth time. She had to admit that this system worked wonders, for whenever there was any trouble brewing up between the siblings, she would show them five or six fingers, and they would understand that they had to be good another four or five occasions. Raju laughed and said it was also the best way to teach them a little arithmetic.
The sun behind the hut had now turned bright orange, and the food was ready. She had managed some fried onions for the dal today, and put a handful of curry leaves and a couple of drumsticks in it. The children liked sucking these noisily as they ate. As a special treat, she had boiled some ashilata nuts in salt water, the kids loved them. Often it was only boiled dal with a little salt and a little haldi. There were no vegetables, but it was not for want of trying. The earth was parched and no amount of watering could remedy this, and whenever there was a little rain and some green shoots appeared, the goats from next door or the chicken, would just wander in and serve themselves. You shooed them away, but they always found their way back. It was a pointless exercise, like catching smoke in a bag, or stopping a dog wagging its tail when it saw the master. There was no oil left after she had fried the onions, so she was going to grill the chapatis on the tawa with water only. They were going to be hard and brittle, but when dipped in the dal they would become easy to munch and swallow. She would have made some sojne data sag from the drumstick tree, that grew everywhere, but without oil, it tasted like raw grass and it left a lingering bitter taste. Sojne data was what the poor survived on when there was nothing else. You plucked a few branches, removed the small round green leaves by sliding three fingers over the stems and when you had nothing else, you boiled this and at least you did not starve, your hunger dissolving the grass taste. Cooked with oil, onions, garlic, haldi, and chillies, it was a very tasty dish and even rich folks liked it.
Suddenly the little ones became excited, and she knew that they had recognised their Baba approaching. She had a funny feeling in her belly, and admitted to herself that she too was excited at the coming home of her man. She slightly resented this, thinking that a grown woman had got no business getting excited just because her man was approaching, but she could not help it. Her love for Raju easily matched his, although she could never convey this to him. The women of her acquaintance always had some grievance against their men. Ma always grumbled at whatever Pitaji was doing. Didi, her sister-in-law never stopped making sarcastic remarks about poor Bhiku, her female cousins often said disparaging things about their men, they talked too much and did little, they made too little money and spent too much on themselves. Shanti suspected that those whose husbands were good in bed complained less. She had heard sarcastic remarks about ‘that pahelwan who talks big and cannot deliver.’ She had not immediately understood the tenor of those words, but the meaning was now clear to her. Raju was no pahelwan, but she suspected that few men were as loving and caring in bed.
Her peers had often talked about their fears of what was going to happen on their wedding night, but Shanti had always rather looked forward to hers, albeit with some trepidation, feeling that that mysterious feelings she often experienced all over her body would respond to whatever was going to happen, in a good way. Her breasts had just started to develop when she had found that when she was unable to go to sleep, stroking between her legs made her feel good and helped send her to the land of dreams, although she could not dispel the gnawing feeling that she was doing something wicked. No doubt a man was going to make her feel even better, she had hoped. Raju had been so nice, had kept telling her not to be afraid. If you tell me to stop, I will, he had promised. The first time there was some blood which terrified her. Oh Bhagwan, I am bleeding to death, she had thought. It’s nothing, he had said, it’s always like this. How did he know? Had he done it to someone else before? She had not dared ask him then, but later he would tell her that the hakeem had explained everything to him before he got married. She had felt the same sensation take possession of her body as when she stroked herself — the practice had become very regular over the years — but this was so much better. It was like the downpour outside during the monsoon compared to the trickle that came in through the leaky roof. The memory of the experience left her in a daze the next day. It was so good to be alive! But she had decided that it was unseemly to show your man the extent of your enjoyment of sex, she was no nautch girl. She therefore tried to mute her enjoyment… until the inevitable day when she dropped her guard.
After a week, Raju began to talk about other things that they could do. She did not understand, but she was too shy to ask what he meant. One night, he suddenly grabbed her, pulled her head towards him, and kissed her. She liked being kissed, and responded with measured enthusiasm, but this time he prised her lips open with his tongue and introduced it inside her mouth, and got her to put hers in his at the same time. She had demurred, but found this almost unbearably exciting, her whole body filled with a sensation of well-being that she had never experienced before, and she readily shed her frock and waited for him to start proceedings. But he did not. Instead he began to stroke her and put his finger inside her. Is he mistaking his finger for the other thing? Arrey what are you doing? She was on the point of asking, but she was experiencing yet more pleasant sensations and turned her head away. Women too have a little danta, he explained, and he made her whole body tingle as he found it and twiddled it. He suddenly slid down and used his tongue down below too. Though shocked, she had liked it, so when he directed her head down towards his loins, she knew what he wanted, and pretending reluctance, she took his swollen danta in her mouth. She had liked the feeling. It was nice and warm, had a lovely consistency, and she had sucked him, at first timidly, but more lustily afterwards. Her tongue began to tingle, then her whole mouth. This new feeling spread across her whole body and she thought she was going to pass out when he finally put his danta inside her. He taught her that there was no shame in liking liking for sex, but although he would often talk about it in his all-knowing manner, she never talked about it except to answer his questions. Shrugging, and with the shadow of a smile on her face, she would say things like, Yes, it’s all right, but I prefer a good fish curry with baigun and chillies. I can’t promise you fish everyday, but if it’s meat you’re after, you can have it as often as you wish. Yes, he was a bit of a boast, but in this case he was totally justified.
He was no doubt going to want it tonight, they had not done it in three days (why?). As usual she would demur when he would make his intention clear, it was a game, she felt she had to pretend. She never understood why. Sometimes she wished she could tell him how much she loved their lovemaking, but it must be a woman thing. Fifty generation of female reticence cannot disappear overnight. She wondered whether he realised how much this part of their life together meant to her. Arrey what was she thinking, that he was going to want it tonight? She wanted it just as badly.
She began listening to the children. The girl who was only four was saying that Baba was going to tell them a story tonight, he had ‘cromised,’ she said. It’s not ‘cromise,’ you silly owl, it’s ‘gromise,’ why don’t you learn to talk proper, said the boy who was a year younger, but she noticed that he had already, like all males, assumed a natural superiority in all matters. You shut your mouth, she snapped, and she heard them pushing and pulling, but there were no tears. Yes, Raju liked telling them stories. He was a gifted storyteller, and remembered loads of stories from his childhood. His father read books and had told him lots of stories, as did Phoopi Umma, and it seems that when he went to visit the old man, who was now almost a cripple, the old man would indulge in storytelling over a cup of chai.
More often than not, he would start on a well-known tale, but would be unable to resist messing with it, chopping bits and changing. She had to admit that sometimes his new version was so much more refreshing and had even her in stitches. The youngsters would squeal happily, remembering a previous version. Baba, that’s all wrong, you’re doing it on purpose, you’re saying it all wrong. Raju would then assume a serious pose. Yes, you are quite absolutely, perfectly, and entirely right! One hundred and one percent! And he would scratch his head in mock earnest and pretend to revert to the old scenario. This would redouble the wailing. We like the new one better, the children would then scream.
As a child, Shanti loved stories too. Old Nani Laddoo used to arrive in her precarious little boat which she paddled herself as she went visiting her customers with her sweetmeats every week, and often, neighbours and their children would beat a path to their door on the off-chance that the old crone had a story to tell. Radha pretended a complete lack of interest in these proceedings (‘Arrey, stories are for kids, na.’) but she would sit on her mat, woven from hental fronds, spread under the veranda and informally preside. Some ladies who had won her favour would be invited to join her and Nani on the mat, and the others would sit on the floor, and wait. The old dear knew how to play with her audience.
‘Once upon a time’, she would start, but she would immediately stop. Could some child fetch me a lota of water please? The children would jostle and push, each wanting to be the one to carry out this welcome task, possibly in the hope that during the narration Nani Laddoo would apostrophise her, and create the illusion that she was the one the story was being told to, that the others were just being offered crumbs. Shanti usually won.
‘As I was saying,’ the old dear would start again, after having taking a sip, ‘once upon a time…’ and she would stop again. The children would begin to protest at this unwarranted stoppage.
I am not telling stories to children who are asleep, she would admonish. We are not asleep, the children would chorus. Why am I not hearing you respond then? She loved telling stories, but she exacted one price, and it was just one syllable: ‘Unh!’ every time she paused for breath. This was what showed her that her every word was being hung to.
‘Once upon a time—’
A chorus of ‘Unh!’
‘There was a king, his queen and their three sons.’
‘They were very happy, of course, but the queen longed for a daughter.’
‘They tried every magic potion, every prayer, but still there was no baby.’
Sometimes the children would play tricks on her.
‘An old man disguised as a fruit seller appeared at the castle one morning—’
She would stop suddenly and wait for the ‘Unh!’, but it was not forthcoming. Shanti never understood how the synchronisation worked, nobody said a word, no signals were exchanged, and yet the ‘Unh’ tarried on their collective lips at the same precise moment. Nani would cup her hand behind an ear, and repeat.
‘An old man disguised as a fruit seller appeared at the castle one morning…’ A resounding silence sometimes breached by an imperfectly repressed guffaw.
‘Well, I am going home now, you children have all fallen asleep…’
At this point, all the children would burst out laughing, explaining that they were teasing the old dear, they were only pretending. Ma did not approve of this.
‘Do you children have no respect for your elders? Teasing Nani like this? How dare you?’ But Nani would spring to the defence of the little ones.
‘Arrey beti, if my own grandchildren cannot have a little fun teasing me, then who can?’ And the narration continued in the same vein until the whole story had run its course, until good had defeated evil, the queen had borne the child she was longing for and the prince married the princess and they lived happily ever after.
On more than one occasion, Shanti remembered a very unusual stoppage. The first time, she was in the middle of the story of Bol Bida Raja, and the princess had just espied her beloved prince metamorphosing into a Cobra.
‘He had black crystalline eyes,’ she was saying, ‘his body was shiny, like a massive jewel, and oh,’ she wailed alarmingly, and addressed Ma, ‘tell me, beti, what do you do when your very destiny is rotten.’
The children and everybody else stared at the narrator open-mouthed, not understanding what was going on. The first time, Ma frowned but she liked to be thought of as a woman of wisdom who was able to dispense advice. By now, the storyteller was in tears.
‘It’s the bahu?’ Ma asked, knowing that relations between the old woman and her daughter-in-law were always strained.
‘That’s because your son is a half-man who cannot control his wife,’ Ma said with great finality.
‘You’ve put your finger on it,’ the old widow nodded appreciatively, having dried her tears. ‘As you say, it’s all my fault, I didn’t bring them up firmly enough.’ Suddenly the tears began to flow again.
‘But what could I a helpless widow do? Why did their father suddenly decide to die on me, why didn’t Bhagwan take me instead? I am so useless.’
Ma was not usually one to give credit to others too lightly, but this time she was quite lavish.
‘Aunty, what are you saying? You were never a helpless woman, when that useless husband of yours was killed by lightning, what did you do? Did you throw your hands up in the air and wail? No, you decided to earn a living for your little ones. You toiled all the hours of the day cooking your laddoos, and putting them in your basket and you rowed miles and miles on the waters in your boat, in sunny or stormy weather selling them to the rich families, how can anybody say a woman like you is useless, come on pull yourself together.’
The other women in the audience made assenting and appreciative noises, and the old cake vendor poured out her grievances. The daughter-in-law told lies about her to her husband and the ungrateful son believed her. She answered back, she was sullen, she was slatternly, never putting things in the right place… Then just as suddenly she stopped, dried her tears and without warning, picked up the thread of her narration, as if there had never been any interruption.
‘He tried to look away when he realised that the princess had seen him, but the game was up. He loved his princess and the last thing he wanted was to make her unhappy, but there was nothing to do. His serpent eyes became filled with tears… Why did you say my husband was useless, it wasn’t his fault that lightning struck him down?’ This was addressed to Ma, who often spoke without thinking.
‘No, I didn’t mean he was useless, what I meant was why did he have to die. I mean a man dies and leaves a widow and children to look after themselves. You know what I mean? I didn’t mean to say useless.’ Nani was unconvinced, but decided to let it go.
‘… because the princess had discovered his secret…’
Everybody marvelled at the precision of Nani’s storytelling. If she told the same story twice, there would never be one word changed.
Raju had a totally different style of narration. The plot was never sacrosanct. To him everything was in the telling of the tale. Do dafa ka zikr hai… Twice upon a time, he would sometimes begin. This made the kids scream with mock indignation. But Baba, it’s not twice upon a time, stories always begin with Ek dafa ka zikr hai… once upon a time! No, no, he would explain, sometimes it is twice upon a time, sometimes it is once upon a time, and believe me, sometimes it can even be three times upon a time.
His favourites were the Birbal stories, but Raju was never one to tell them straight. His version of the story of the well, that Shanti had heard from Nani Laddoo as a child, did not feature an ordinary well with water in it, no sir, Raju had to bring in a gold well.
‘A gold well, Baba?’ the children would ask in wonderment.
‘Yes, a gold well. Let me explain, you throw your pail in and when you pulled, you had a pail full of liquid gold, but of course once you took the liquid gold out, you had massive shiny gold lumps.’
‘Baba, you’re teasing us again, how can—’.
‘Shut your face, you don’t know better than Baba. Go on, Baba, tell us.’
‘Well, it was like this. As I said, there was this diamond well—’
Now both kids would squeal their objection in unison, Baba, you said gold, now you’re saying diamond.
‘Diamond? Did I say diamond? Ma,’ he would ask Shanti, ‘did you hear me say diamond?’ And she, trying hard to repress her laughter, managed a few words.
‘Children, remind me tomorrow to put a drop of coconut oil in your ears, you seem to be becoming deaf. I never heard your father say diamonds, he said gold.’
The children loved it when Ma joined Baba to tease them, happy that dad and mum were on the same side.
‘Anyway, the owner of the well, was a very greedy man, a greedy man and a cheat! And he a wicked plan. I will sell the well, he thought, ask for a lot of money for it.
‘Many people were keen to buy the well,’ Raju went on, ‘specially as they all knew that it was a gold well, and he sold it to a good man from Bihar.
‘Biharis are the best!’ He always got that bit in all his stories.
‘The man from Bihar had paid a lot of money, but he knew that he was on to a good thing. So immediately the sale had taken place, he went to the well with his wife and brothers, each carrying a pail. His intention was clear, he was literally going to collect gold by the bucketful, and start leading the life of a Mughal emperor.
‘But do you think he was able to do that?’ he asked the children. The boy, always the optimist shouted yes, but the more cautious girl glumly shook her head, and said no.
‘Ask your Ma.’ Shanti pretended to agree with the boy. Raju shook her head sadly and smiled.
‘My Sundari is right. They were stopped by the man who had just agreed to the sale.’
‘The man had no right,’ said the boy indignantly. She loved the boy’s indignation, taking it to be a manifestation of his sense of justice. ‘He had bought the well, so it belonged to him… the man from… from Mihar!’
‘Bihar, stupid,’ the girl corrected, pulling a face at her brother.
‘He had no right, he had no right, the man from B-Bihar had bought the well.’
‘Yes, the cheating seller countered, he had bought the well, but… listen to this… not its contents. The well belongs to you, but the gold is mine, he said.’
‘But that’s not fair,’ the little ones chorused, and Raju demurred sadly.
‘So, the seller and the man from Bihar — oh, what a lovely place, Bihar, the Bodh Gaya… arrey, don’t get me started on my lovely Bihar, or I’ll never finish. Yes, they agreed to go to the court of Emperor Akbar and ask the wise Birbal to arbitrate.’
‘Who was the wise Birbal, Baba?’
‘He was the emperor’s diwan, the wisest man in the court. Even the emperor asked him to take decisions for him. So, to cut a long long story short short, each one tells the story and Birbal listens intently. When they finish, he shakes his head first, then nod. He makes a sign to a hookah wallah standing by…’ Raju paused very slightly, his eyes twinkling with anticipation, for he knew the children wanted to ask a question.
‘What’s a hookah wallah?’
‘I knew they’d ask,’ he addressed her first, then turned to the children. ‘Children,’ he said happily, ‘whenever you don’t understand anything, just ask.’ But he did not answer the question.
‘First Birbal turns to the seller, and asks him to repeat that he had legally sold the well to the man, in front of witnesses. The cheat nods, saying “But sarkar, no one said anything about the contents. The well belongs to the man from Bihar, but the gold belongs to me.”
‘Birbal turns to the man from Bihar. “When the man sold you the well, did he also sell you its contents? Was that point raised?” The man from Bihar turns ashen and admits that only the well was mentioned, whereupon the seller’s face glow with happiness.
‘“The well belongs to the man from Bihar, but the gold belongs to the first man,” Birbal says dramatically.
‘“My Lord Birbal, everybody says how wise you are, and now I can add my voice to this chorus. Today I have witnessed justice as it is dished out at the court of the good emperor Akbar.” The man from Bihar looks like he is about to faint and collapse.
‘“So,” Birbal tells the seller, “as the gold is yours, I have to ask you to remove all of it within twenty four hours, leaving not one drop behind, or the man from Bihar will be entitled to charge you rent for allowing you to keep your property in his well. Remember, not one drop!”
‘“R-r-r-r-ent?” the seller wails,’ in a falsetto voice, which the storyteller gave an excellent version of.
‘Rent?’ the little ones asked, ‘what is rent?’
‘I knew you’d ask. Rent is something you pay, usually money, when you make use of something belonging to someone else.’
‘Like we live in this hut and work on the fields, growing beans baigun and bhindi, but neither the land nor the hut belongs to us,’ Shanti started.
‘I know,’ the girl said, ‘everything belongs to that bloodsucker, Uncle Dukhdeo—’
‘Arrey, where did you learn language like that, Sundari? You mustn’t say things like that,’ Raju admonished her mildly.
‘Uncle Sukhdeo… his name is not Dukhdeo,’ Shanti replied uneasily.
‘But Baba calls him that bloodsucker Dukhdeo,’ protested the boy.
‘Don’t say rude things like that about people,’ she had entreated her man who smiled apologetically and shrugged. Not that she believed for a moment that he would mend his ways, Bhagwan forbids! He made her laugh so much, and wouldn’t want him different. You had to laugh, Sukhdeo becoming Dukhdeo. It was so obvious to all that the name of the man was completely inappropriate, as Raju said, Sukh being happiness and Dukh pain.
‘Anyway,’ explained Raju, ‘the land is his, and I cultivate it with Ma, and we give him more than half of everything we harvest. That is a sort of rent.’
The boy began to air his indignation, saying that it wasn’t right, since Baba and Ma did all the work, but Raju did not want to start a big palaver, and asked them whether they wanted to hear the story or not, to which they screamed their positive response.
‘“R-r-r-r-rent?” said the cheating seller in dismay. Yes, rent, Birbal echoed. The man’s face suddenly brightened.
‘“Oh yes, I can pay rent. A fair rent of course, just say it.”
‘“Of course, a fair rent.” Birbal concedes. The seller looks at Birbal, then at the man from Bihar, and then again at Birbal.
‘“Let me think,” says Birbal, closing his eyes for a while. When he opens them again, he nods and smiles.
‘“I have given the matter serious consideration—”
‘“Yes, yes,” interrupts the cheating seller, “what, may I kindly ask your worship, would the rent be when I am coming to take my liquid gold out?”
‘“For every pail you get out, you will pay the man from Bihar a rent of two pails of liquid gold.” The seller frowns, opens his mouth, but not one word comes out.
‘“You m-m-m-mean,” he stammers finally, “I have to draw three pails each time, take one for myself and give the man from Bihar two?”
‘Birbal shakes his head. “No,” he says, “that’s not what I said, if you draw out three pails of gold, you will owe the man from Bihar six pails.”
‘“Then I must draw nine pails,” wails the cheating seller.
‘“Nine pails? No, if you draw out nine pails, then you must pay the man eighteen.” The children squealed with joy at seeing villainy confounded. But Raju was in full flow.
‘“But… but…but that can’t be, how can I do that?”
‘“I will close my eyes,” says Birbal, “and count to ten, if when I open them you are gone, I will forget the whole case, and forget that you came here, otherwise…”
The children squealed with delight, the boy almost ended up crying, so happy he was. The girl loved the story no less, but she had a streak of realism in her which belied her age, and when she managed to stop laughing, she said, almost to herself, I don’t believe that a well can contain liquid gold.