Power cuts were something that the people of Meerut accepted with equanimity while cussing loudly as they fanned themselves. Bade Papa often wore a banian and cotton pajamas as he taught his students, seating himself by the open door so that he could feel the slightest breeze if it made its way to his house. The students would sweat as they struggled with the various verbs that English Grammar threw at them, hardly able to concentrate for the heat. On one such hot and lightless evening, as dusk started to fall, Sukanya lay on the bed next to Bade Mummy’s. Bade Papa nursed a drink and played his harmonium, singing an Urdu gazal that Sukanya found sweet, though she could not understand it at all. Bade Papa was a bit of a poet, she thought and smiled to herself. It was now almost dark. Badi Mummy must have dozed off, the pain medication possibly providing some relief at last.
‘Kaun hai, kaun hai,’ Bade Papa suddenly shouted. Badi Mummy woke up with a start. Sukanya jumped out of her skin and then jumped out of bed to check on the cause for excitement, switching on the flashlight that lay on the bedstool just for these emergencies.
‘He he, Bade Papa, it’s me,’ said Sushma from under her ghunghat. Sushma was married to Natwar. She had grown up in a village and believed in covering her face and head with the pallu of her sari whenever faced with an elder, ‘I was only touching your feet.’
‘Sushma! What do you want?’ clearly Bade Papa had not taken this display of respect in a good spirit, having spilled a little of his drink.
‘Nothing, Amma Ji said that I should give this to Sukanya bitiya,’ said Sushma.
‘Humph,’ said Bade Papa.
‘Oh, it’s my dress, for Gumbi’s wedding, Bade Papa,’ explained Sukanya and took the package from Sunni, ‘thanks, I will come by tomorrow if I need any alternations.’
Sushma nodded and dived at Bade Papa’s feet again.
‘Jeete raho, khush raho,’ grumbled Bade Papa and moved away, his glass in his hand.
The lights came back on.
‘Arrey, show it to me,’ said Badi Mummy after shouting out a few earfuls at Sushma for startling people in the darkness. Sukanya duly handed over the clothes.
‘Hmmm,’ Badi Mummy critically observed the clothes and stretched them this way and that, ‘chalo, theek hai. Tell Rajni we will try it out and let her know. She has limited talent. She spoils my sari blouses all the time.’
‘She’s ok, Badi Mummy,’ said Sukanya and went off to try the new clothes. They fit well though they were a far cry from the Zara clothes that she normally wore in London. The green suited her, she decided, and maybe Badi Mummy would lend her some jewellery to go with it. She came back downstairs to model her new look and found a distinguished-looking stranger sitting with her grandparents. He was dressed in a white shirt and white pants. This was the second time in as many days that she was seeing a man clad in all white. His hair was graying at the temples. He looked grave and amiable all at once, the wrinkles around his eyes lit up by an infectious smile. Charming, that was the word.
‘Arrey, come in, come in,’ he rose as he saw her, his broad smile widening, its warm embrace enveloping her, ‘bhai wah, I expected Shilajit’s daughter to be a half Angrez but Sukanya looks as desi as kulhad ki chai, haan, bhabhi ji?’
Sukanya folded her hands in a stiff Namaste, aware that already his approval was important.
‘Sukanya, this is Dinanath Shukla ji. He is the principal of the college where Bade Papa and Sugandha teach. We go back a very long way, beta.’
‘Long way, indeed,’ said Shukla ji with a laugh, ‘forty years, maybe more. I saw your father as a baby. You look a lot like him. The same brooding, serious look.’
‘I am not serious,’ said Sukanya, a trifle more petulantly than she had intended, ‘and this is a dress that I need to wear for a wedding.’
Sunita Chachi burst in with a tray of teacups, a sugarbowl with real sugar cubes, Sukanya noted with surprise, and even a small milk jug. Usually tea was made by boiling water, then adding tea-leaves and sugar and boiling it a little more and finally adding milk and boiling the whole thing till it all the flavours were as far from delicate as was possible. Sukanya had grown used to this masala latte chai as she called it to herself but it was a far cry from the delicate Darjeeling that her mother used to brew at home.
‘Principal sahab, I got some tea,’ said Sunita. She was simpering, Sukanya noticed with a mix of surprise and disgust, ‘I thought, Badi Mummy would want to serve you something nice and this little Sukanya can barely boil an egg, haha.’
Principal Sahab took the cup of tea that was being offered and laughed heartily.
‘This Sunita understands my weakness for her special chai,’ he said, ‘have you had the opportunity to eat her cooking, Sukanya? She is Devi Annapoorna reincarnated.’
Sunita Chachi blossomed under all this attention. Sukanya helped to prop up Badi Mummy with extra pillows and handed her a cup of tea. Sunita offered Principal Sahab some homemade naankhatai, which he accepted with a smile. Sukanya took her own tea and sat down on Badi Mummy’s bed and took another good look at this new arrival. He was quite tall and well-built, possibly an athlete in younger days, an ex-jock whose hours of physical endurance were paying off in his twilight years. He was light of skin, very much so and beneath his thin, rimless glasses, his eyes were a light shade of brown not commonly seen in India. His left cheek dimpled as he smiled and possibly to display that attractive feature, he smiled a lot. Sukanya found herself assessing him, something she did only when instantly mistrusted people. He was like a player on stage, possibly playing the lead romantic part and women of all ages succumbed to his overt charms, much like Sunita Chachi was doing now.
‘Prinicipal Sahab taught me English Literature in college,’ she now addressed Sukanya, ‘and I still think of his class on Lord Byron. One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace…..’
Had half impaired the nameless grace…..’
'Which waves in every raven tress, Or softly lightens o'er her face,’ completed Principal Sahab. Badi
Mummy smiled in appreciation.
Natwar Chacha burst in, carrying a large brown bag in his hands and deposited it with Bade Papa.
‘Aha, here comes Natwar,’ Bade Papa said with a broad grin, ‘I sent instructions to Lachho that the samosas had better remain hot. Also kalakand!’ Sukanya prepared for yet another deep-fried feast right before dinner.
‘Since when have you started thinking of me as a guest, Professor Sahab,’ asked Principal Shukla with another belly laugh. Sunita Chachi took the food and went inside to serve it. Sukanya followed her.
‘So Shukla Uncle was your teacher, yes, Chachi,’ she prodded as Sunita Chachi opened the various packets of khatti and meethi chutneys that the good halwai had packed with the samosas.
‘Oh yes, the best years of my life. I was the cultural secretary of the college, gudiya, and he used to take a lot of interest in the activities that we did. He knows so much about poetry and theatre and literature. I quite thought he was like Lord Byron himself. All the girls had such massive crushes on him.’
‘And some haven’t got over them yet,’ said Sukanya with a smile, thinking that Sunita Chachi’s Byron-centric fantasies must remain unfulfilled, married as she was to a plump, laddu-loving bhondu who often wore white socks under his black office shoes, ‘so is Byron married?’
‘Ha ha ha, of course, to a complete dehati, I have heard though I have never seen seen her. I believe his father had fixed the match when Principal Sahab was barely in his teens and there was no way he could get out of it. Well, it was a fruitful marriage for sure. Six children, three girls and three boys. Help me with this tray, will you?’
Bade Papa and Principal Shukla were up till late that night, discussing many things. After Badi Mummy took some medicines and the pain became bearable, she lay down, leaving the men to talk. Sukanya took an Agatha Christie from Bade Papa’s collection and retired to her room but could not focus on the murder mystery beyond the first five pages, an unlikely event given that she was a third generation Poirot aficionado. She found herself dwelling on Byron as she had christened Principal Shukla. He sure behaved like a filmstar, used to adulation and chosing to grace his followers with attention when he felt like it. Perhaps she was able to take an outsider’s view on it, everyone else seemed to have an intense liking for him. Or maybe despite the difference in age, the people here were simpler. In the first eighteen years of her life, she had probably seen more of life, met more people, many of them ridiculously mean and contemptible. Complete assholes, as her peer group labeled them.
Well, at least she had a nice dress to wear for the wedding.
She had just drifted off to sleep when loud voices from downstairs woke her up. She switched on the light and ran to see what had happened.
Bade Papa was holding down Badi Mummy, who seemed to be in complete agony. Her body was twisting in pain. Her eyes were closed but she was whimpering, clutching at her stomach.
‘What happened, Bade Papa? ’ asked Sukanya, panic rising in her throat.
‘Call Anju, knock at her door. Call Natwar,’ shouted Bade Papa and Sukanya ran to obey. She unlocked the door and rushed outside. Anju’s door was only a few steps away but Sukanya knew that inside the simple, wooden door, the house was labyrinthine. There was a shed where two cows were tied and many small rooms, in which Anju Mausi must sleep. Would she even hear her?
Sukanya knocked at the door, shouting at the top of her voice. Anju Mausi only took two minutes in opening the door and she was carrying her emergency medical kit when she did. Her eyes were alert, despite being woken up from deep sleep. Natwar Chacha had already stepped inside the house to check what was happening and had then taken Puru’s moped to fetch the doctor. Sukanya made her way back to the house, her heart sinking, and a sickening feeling that there was no ground beneath her feet.
Badi Mummy was thrashing about and was deliriously invoking Sukanya’s father, her son.
‘Shila, did you leave the achaar jar open again. Fine, don’t listen to me. You will have nothing to eat with your mathris soon. Arrey, look. He stood first in his class again. You wait and watch, ji, Shila will become an IAS officer and then he will come to pick me up in a jeep. A jeep with a flag. Haan, and then I will go and stay in his kothi. He will have two children – a boy and a girl. We will call the girl Sukanya, no?’
Bade Papa, tears streaming down his face was trying to hold her back but his wife seemed to be getting more and more out of control. Mercifully, the moped carrying Natwar Chacha and a doctor in a patterned sleep-suit came into the gulley. Sukanya realized that her own cheeks were wet and made her way out of the house and sat down heavily on the steps outside. Sunita Chachi made her way towards her in a patterned nightie, a dupatta draped modestly over the loose garment.
‘Arrey, don’t cry, lalli,’ she said affectionately, placing a warm hand on Sukanya’s shoulder, ‘your dadi will be alright. The doctor has come now.’ A few other people were looking outside their doors and asking each other what had happened. Sukanya suddenly felt very young. What was she doing here in this strange country, so far away from her parents? They were supposed to manage these adult things, not her. She felt angry with them for letting her go so far away from them, conveniently forgetting that it had been her decision.
‘Here, come inside, gudiya,’ said Sunita and pulled Sukanya to her feet, ‘you need some tea. Your face has gone all pale.’
Sukanya stepped inside Sunita’s house, right across the narrow alley, vaguely realizing that this was the first time that she was letting herself inside, having so far passed Badi Mummy’s messages from the door. Technically there was only four feet between the two doorsteps. The room that she sat in was tiny and crowded with furniture. There was a diwan, a wooden settee with hand-embroidered cushions on it. There was the ubiquitous sofa set, something that Sunita must have got as part of her dowry. Handmade paintings lined the whitewashed walls as did a calendar that exhorted the reader to Visit! HongKong! There was a niche in the wall that had been later made into a showcase. For some reason, it was stuffed with soft, plush toys, their glassy eyes staring vacantly at visitors.
Sunita went inside to get some tea and Sukanya held her head in her hands, defiantly thinking of her father’s belief that this was a sign of despondency. She ought to see if Bade Papa needed any help instead of crumbling like this. Sunita came inside with the tea, this time in a regular kind of teacup. Sukanya did not want it but after a few sips realized that she needed it. After spending a few minutes with Sunita, she walked back to the house. The doctor was talking to Bade Papa, who seemed to have aged a few years in the last hour or so. Anju was standing with him. Natwar was hanging in the background, fiddling with the blanket that covered Badi Mummy who was finally sleeping. The doctor left with Natwar, asking them to call in case his patient took another turn for the worse.
Anju sat with Sukanya on the bed next to Badi Mummy’s. Bade Papa sat on his armchair just outside the room, keeping the door open in case there were more visitors.
‘I am so glad you are here, Anju Mausi,’ said Sukanya quietly, looking at her grandmother’s restful, pale face. Anju smiled.
‘I will be here for as long as you need me to be, beta, I just need to go check on my son once in a while, though my mother is there with him,’ she said.
‘Your son?’ repeated Sukanya in surprise, ‘I did not know you were married, Mausi.’
Anju stared at her for a moment, then turned her face away.
‘Nobody’s told you my story,’ she observed with a wry laugh, ‘I am surprised. I would have imagined that such a scandalous story would be the first to be disseminated. Issmein sab kuch hai – an unwed mother, a kinky husband, a runaway wife, an adopted child. What do I say? Your grandparents were the only ones to support me when I needed it the most.’