Tuesday 27 March 2012

The last trip into town

He sounded the bus horn thrice, as if he was firing a canon after a hard-won victory.
This is my last trip into town, he thought, overcome by a sense of profound achievement.
He glanced furtively into the rear view mirror and dashed away the happy tears that kept blurring his view of the curving road ahead.
“Careful, Bidha, careful. I have to bring them back safely,” he cautioned himself as the bus lurched around a particularly sharp bend.
His life’s journey had been arduous, but looking back, his devotion of ten years had paid off. And today he could see his dream come true, seated right behind him: an educated Muggi and his bride, the shy red-clad girl with a radiant smile. He still could not believe it. On entering the bus, Muggi first touched Bidha’s knees in respect (his feet were too difficult to reach). Then he asked his wife to do the same. Bidha was overwhelmed. He just placed his humble hands on their heads in blessing.
The long drive was not at all exhausting today. The day passed off in a dream. Soon it was time to take the bus back, the last time for him. He looked around for Muggi and his wife. “As always, I shall wait for the boy,” he promised himself as he heaved his frail body into the driver’s seat. But today Muggi was already there, whispering to his bride in their own little world of happiness. Smiling, Bidha put the bus into first gear and started for home.
He wished he had the courage to ask Muggi to be there for him just one last time. Well, he pacified himself, at least they were settled into a happy life. The dear boy was already so protective of his wife. And she, she will look after him well, too. That look in her eyes says she loves him as much, and they haven’t been married for two full days yet, he chuckled inwardly.
No one knew this, but to him Muggi was his son. Not born of his loins, of course, but over the years he had watched silently over him as he would have over his own flesh and blood. It had helped heal the wound his own child had given him.
He relived that moment many times. A very young Muggi had jumped off a moving bullock cart to chase the bus. Bidha spotted him in the mirror, and screeched to a halt. Muggi’s grateful look as he clambered aboard brought a rush of affection he had not thought was possible any more.
This was the very last day the senior school up in the town will allow new students to join, an out-of-breath Muggi told the conductor. If he had missed this bus, his studies would have been ruined, his life in one big mess.
“Just like my son’s life,” Bidha thought. But he had always shirked school, that one. What did he hanker after?  A bat and ball, marbles, playing cards, the village dancer, hooch. And he was barely 15.
One day, Bidha scolded him real hard. He sold his school books to a farm hand next morning and vanished, never to return.
Muggi had unknowingly won himself a guardian. Bidha vowed the boy would never miss a class. 
Muggi made the most of his bus trips, poring over his books. They hardly ever spoke, but they did exchange a tentative smile in the mirror at times. Bidha kept a rough bag in the corner seat behind him, pulling it away for none but Muggi. This wordless cooperation endured through Muggi’s college days and beyond.
He was a grown-up man now and taught in the college he had graduated from. But still he made the same trip by bullock cart to the village bus stop, returning from town in the same bus, in the same seat.
For some reason, neither broke the ice. He would let the conductor know if he was not coming in the next day. On all other days, the bus would not leave the village till the cart carrying Muggi trundled in, invariably late.
“After a long time your bus will leave on schedule. After all, you are retiring tomorrow,” his boss joked loudly as Bidha climbed off the bus gingerly.
He hardly heard him. He was watching Muggi and his bride head for the bullock cart. But Muggi heard, and turned around.
“You are retiring, Kaka? Can we come in to greet you in the morning?” he asked hesitantly, for the first time addressing him directly. His wife nodded in agreement.
Bidha turned beetroot red at being caught staring, but his cup of joy brimmed over nevertheless.
“Y-yes, my children, p-please do,” he stammered, not minding those stubborn tears.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Retold: When the spirit refuses to break - II

Once she was back on her feet, her family told Reshma about her husband. She decided she would not return to him. Her parents agreed, owning responsibility for the bad match.
Resilient of spirit, Reshma said she would look for work to support her child. Her mother and she took turns to work and attend to the baby. She found a housemaid’s job in the nearby flats. That was how she landed at my doorstep a year later.
At some stage I asked her if she had considered remarriage. “I have no illusions. Why will anyone accept my child? Once he fathers children of his own, he will expect me to give them all my attention and will resent my son,” was the matter-of-fact reply.
She was clear what she wanted from life now. She made a number of trips to her village, filing for divorce. She told her mother-in-law that her jewellery was all she wanted back, not alimony. Her husband had not dared face her since the child’s birth. He did come to Delhi once seeking to expedite the divorce, but she was away. He was plain lucky, she said fiercely.
She tells me now that her husband has got himself yet another woman. Reshma no longer visits the village, the divorce case therefore cannot move forward, and he is stuck. Period. I see that her fiery spirit still burns bright. Kudos to that.
Her son has inherited her smile.
I enquire about her son. He is quite small for his age, wears thick glasses and is very fussy about food and clothes. How come? I ask. “I know I am spoiling him. But he is all I have, so I spend on him every paisa I can spare.”
She got him admitted to an English-medium school through the quota for EWS (economically weaker sections), she says. I note that her earlier smattering of English has grown into a decent-sized vocabulary.
How is he coping with it? For that matter, how is she coping?
Her son, now 9, is struggling with the language, but she sends him to a local tutor. He wants to set up a big garage when he grows up.
She is cook to six different families. She buys him all that the public school demands (fancy dresses, projects, charts and drawing materials), treats him to a monthly pleasure trip to malls on the Metro, watches cookery shows on TV to make fancy dishes for him, and is soon buying buy life insurance to give him a secure future, just in case she suddenly dies. Phew!
And she still manages that infectious smile? Yes, in fact her son has inherited it, she beams at me. “What will tears get me? It is best to bear it with a grin,” she philosophizes.
At the same time, she continues to ward off matchmakers, some of whom suggest that she give away her son in adoption and settle down with another man.
She has bought a small piece of land in a neighbouring city, and pays each monthly instalment on time through a bank account. I tease her about the day her daughter-in-law may not want her around. “Oh, I am not foolish. She will have to suffer me if she wants the land. It will remain in my name till I die,” she says. “My son does not eat or sleep without me today, but it does not take much for times to change. So I am taking no chance,” she says wisely, and she is not yet 30.
She boasts no family riches. Yet she is teaching her (ex?) husband a well-deserved lesson, and is fighting life on her own terms. Her resources are meagre but she is full of pluck, supplemented with some good luck. For a woman in her position could not have come this far without her family by her side.
I cross my fingers and say a silent prayer.

Friday 16 March 2012

Retold: When the spirit refuses to break - I

A smiling Reshma rang the bell just as the episode on television ended. It was a serial about a vastly rich woman trying to bring a wayward husband to his knees.
Reshma’s smile rarely deserts her.
I was struck by the sharp contrast between the two women – the one I’d been watching on television, rich but distraught, and the one who now stood before me, poor but full of poise. 
Reshma is good-looking, fair-complexioned, tall and willowy. She used to work for me many years ago, and still drops in once in a while. Let me recount her tale: 
She was not yet 20 when her family married her off to a neighbour in their Madhya Pradesh village.
Her parents had migrated to Delhi some years before that. Both had found jobs as cooks. Most of her siblings, married or single, had also settled here. Yet they decided that life in their ancestral village was good enough for Reshma.
She was in the family way soon enough, and her woes began almost right away. Her husband turned out to be a philanderer. He loved the good life, wanted rich food, clothes like those his in-laws in Delhi wore, and a bike to ride around on. To her dismay, Reshma found that he expected her family to keep up a regular supply of goods and cash.
Her protestations drew out the worst in him. His mother added fuel to the fire, sensing easy money. She spirited away the gold ornaments Reshma’s parents had so lovingly bought, and cursed her incessantly for being no good.
Reshma rarely ate, despite her pregnancy. She discovered her husband was visiting his old flame regularly. She worked all day and cried all night, but he did not care a whit. He was not there even when she gave birth to their son. Her sister-in-law informed her parents on the sly. She also related what Reshma was going through.
It took her mother two days to reach the village. Reshma had by then lost a lot of blood, and was too weak to even pick up her newborn. Without much ado, her mother bundled up Reshma and her child and somehow brought them to Delhi. The good woman for whom she cooked supported her efforts to nurse the daughter back to health.
In the village, meanwhile, Reshma’s husband decided to bring his girlfriend home to live with.
More next week

Monday 5 March 2012

Retold: A tale of endurance – II

Smita’s dreams came crashing down. 

She had had no illusions about her looks or her limitations, but she was a Delhi girl and had some expectations from life. The man she would marry need not be highly educated, nor very rich, but he should cherish her for what she was. Her husband was not what she had longed for. He was the youngest in a large joint family, a spoilt brat with no interest in marriage, and quite casual about their relationship. That really hurt, to put it mildly, but she had no shoulder to cry on.

His parents were quite old already. Smita struck a great friendship with them, and it was one reason why she survived those initial years. They had once headed the ruling family whom all the locals bowed to, but time had been cruel to them. Yet they remained regal despite their hardships, and continued to command considerable respect in society.

Smita gave birth to twins, and immersed herself in bringing them up. Her husband, meanwhile, carried on with his indifferent ways. It was years before her submissiveness, quiet suffering and limitless endurance began to get to him. Her rock-steady devotion to him and his family softened his rough edges, and he mellowed little by little.

He did not earn enough to support a family of four, and so gave in when a sister-in-law suggested that Smita take up teaching. The books she had loved so much in college stood her in good stead now. It was a hard life. She stayed by herself for a year in another town to obtain a teacher’s degree. The twins, then very young, were looked after mostly by their father and his mom. Smita returned to her family and became a schoolteacher.

The twins bore the rough life rather well as their parents struggled to give them a semblance of decent living. Their part of the family estate was a rundown affair, but there was never enough money for repairs. Years later, Smita and her husband got a neat sum when pay scales were revised. They invested some in renovation, and the rest in arranging for the twins’ college studies in another town.

Today, Smita is quite dependent on her husband, what with her back packing up frequently and her irritating hearing aid of little use (she tends to take it off ever so often). She continues to teach, though, and the man who once couldn’t care less about her is all tenderness and love. He is now retired, and his entire day revolves around making life comfortable for one who sacrificed so much for him.

Their doting children are self-sufficient and love their father dearly for the way he changed himself. Her devotion has paid her back in ample measure.