A soul in the Well-1
A square courtyard surrounded by four high walls… Was it a courtyard or a well? A well where six souls lived together – but detached. The smallest among them, a two and a half year old stood gazing into the sky visible through the square courtyard. Balancing on her left toe, spreading her arms out like wings, trying to twirl like a spinning button. Falling down, getting up, then falling down again – gazing into the sky every now and then – “Had the sky changed its shape in between? Why does it not change?” She was upset. There was bustling at home. Mother along with the elder sisters was busy in the kitchen – the aroma of frying poories filled the place. In those days when every food had a fixed day, the aroma of poories implied a different kind of story. “Is it a special day?” she thought. Now clothes were getting collected into the black iron box and a large bedding was spread into the courtyard. Suddenly she got a scolding from her sister. “Oh My! What are you doing? Get out of here. Let us work. Don’t touch a thing.” Any tender age could understand the irritation in that voice. She decided to leave – but now she could not watch the sky, sometimes yellow…. sometimes blue.
How big could the sky be? She mused, when she heard one of her sisters asking mother, “Maa, who is getting married in maama’s house?” The little girl started imagining maama’s house. Is it a big house? Does it have a bigger courtyard with a number of rooms into which one can disappear. Was she was recalling from her memories or was it her imagination, one cannot tell. “Are we going by night train Maa?”, asked another sister. Upon hearing it the girl began to play the train-train game. Chuk chuk khoo khoo… She was the engine and the bogie. Chuk chuk khoo khoo… “Oh God! She has gone mad”, said the sister annoyed. Poories, Potato curry, by evening everything was ready. Now it was the time of father’s returning home and also the time when the whole house became quiet. The buzzing sounds of the day could no longer be heard. Today was not any different from the other days. Water was given to father, then tea. Few pairs of eyes peeping from the corners- His daily routine was always the same. Tea, bathing, praying, listening to the news on the radio while drinking some red thing from a glass. All this time even the air had become motionless. But today mother spoke a few words – “Aiji, the luggage was ready”. There was no reply. “Aren’t we going to Bhopal today?” asked mother annoyed. “Oh I forgot. We can go tomorrow,” replied father in a firm tone. “Give me food”. Now there cannot be any more questions. Tiffins were opened but no one seemed happy to eat the tasty food. Though father, ate quietly without any emotion. Perhaps, mother didn’t eat. How could anyone enjoy the food which was meant to be eaten on the train?
Night falls. Sisters were arranging charpoy (beds) in the courtyard. Every charpoy had its own place. Father’s was at the right end while mother’s was at the left. The charpoy was covered by the drugget on which white sheets were spread. Pillows with white covers were placed by the head rest and silken sheets neatly folded were kept at the other end. Father was very particular about neatness and cleanliness. Now one can rest on the pillow and look at the sky though it looked very different from that of the day – dark with a few shining stars. One cannot tell when the stars entered the dreams and sleep took over.
Next day everyone arrived at the railway station. One of the elder cousin brothers was specially summoned by father to accompany them up to Agra where the train should be switched for the final destination. Those were the days when no reservation was done in trains. There was a special bogie for women and children. Getting on the train was nothing less of a gymnastic event. The moment the train arrived, the coolies who were masters at their work, threw one or two children inside via the window. Next goes in the bedding and the boxes. Then women like mother and sister tried to get in through the door. Sometimes the women already seated inside would object and sometimes they made space for the new comers. If we were enough we would get the window seat. Mostly the children had to be satisfied by sitting on the beddings and boxes. Lastly something like water in a mud surahi (flask) came in. Women got friendly in no time and started chatting as though they have known each other for years. The bogie was filled with all kinds of stories – of somebody’s parents, relatives, in-laws, children… When time came, tiffins were opened and food was exchanged even though all their food was similar. Pickle was one food highly in demand. The same exercise was repeated when the trains were changed. But it was all fun for the children and they were hardly troubled by this practice.
At last we all reached Maama’s house almost hanging on the Tanga (Horsecart). As soon as we reached the big gates, so many people came rushing out. “Chandrani Bhai has come from Jaipur!” All of a sudden we were surrounded by people- Maamas, Maasis, Mausis and their children. Mother’s appearance changed. She was looking very beautiful, hugging each and every one. Mother was the dearest sister of her three brothers. She was beautiful and educated. She who barely smiles at home was now laughing, chattering and enjoying the whole house. There were children who belonged to all ages – all our cousins. Those were the days when no toys were needed. Boys used to play a number of games with some stones and a ball. The ‘Sitolya’ was the most popular game. Seven round stones were piled one on top of each other – from the biggest to the smallest. One team used to arrange the stones while the other team would try to catch the person arranging the stones by throwing a ball at him. This continued till one group was defeated. Sometimes even girls took part in the game while the quieter girls would sit and play games with small stones by tossing and trying to catch them on the back of their palms. These were the days when there were no plastic toys – any stone, lid or anything useless was converted into a toy. It was marriage time and elders were busy, while the only agenda on the children’s mind was to laugh, play and enjoy life.
Once while playing hide and seek the little girl came to a dark room with a beautiful aroma. There were a number of big jars neatly covered with cloth. The girl opened one and quietly put her finger in. It was something very familiar. Her mouth started watering. She took a piece and kept in her mouth. Somebody opened the door. “Who is hiding here? Oh! little girl, it’s you. What are you doing? Do you like pickles? Wait, I shall give you. Take this lime and this is…..” The little girl was astonished. She was expecting a scolding and beating but this lady was talking so sweetly. Yes, She was Badi Maami. ‘How nice she is,’ thought the child. “Why don’t you stay with me? I shall give you lots of pickles,” she told her. ‘Hope it was possible,’ thought the child. This place was much more beautiful than the square well.
Time of happiness passed very quickly. Now it was time to return. The child was a bit sad. Again there was going to be a square well with six fluttering souls – as if their life was closed in a bottle by a demon. The Buva (aunt) used to say that one day a prince will come and all problems would disappear.
‘This well is waiting for a prince,’ thought the youngest soul.
Fluttering of the fourth soul
Children never differentiate between their siblings, be it brother or sister. The only thing that concerns them is that increasing of a family member means decreasing in the portion of tasty food. Mother was inside the room along with a nurse and midwife. Bua (father’s sister) sitting on the verandah chanting with a rosary in her hand. Eldest sister was pacing up and down with a worried look on her face. Later in the evening Bua suddenly got angry and started abusing mother.
“You are the woman who has spoiled my brother’s life. You already had four female camels and now the fifth one. I cannot stay here any longer. Bhaiya (brother), call a rickshaw. I am going back.”Nobody knew whether mother had eaten anything or not. Nobody knew the sorrow and pain of a woman who lost her two sons due to carelessness of the family. Nobody even tried to understand that she was not the one to be blamed for giving birth to a daughter. Few days after this incident the girls were faced with an interesting dilemma. They found out that it was easy to divide anything into four but how was it possible to divide among five.
After a few days elder mamma came to take the fourth daughter with him. “Chandran bhai, you needn’t worry. You had four daughters before and you still have four.” One does not know what was in his mind. Was it was the pain of his wife who lost her young son a few months ago or the sorrow of his loving sister who was suffering without any fault of hers. Or was it just an old pair’s need for a live toy to continue the communication.
It is very difficult for children to judge age or beauty, as love for them is the biggest measure of understanding. Slightly dark, slim and short maami’s age was a surprise for the child. A typical golden bindhi on her forehead, half a kilogram of silver belt on her waist, draped in a colourful cotton saree covering the head up to the forehead – she was extremely beautiful. Maybe the definition of beauty was different. The eldest daughter-in-law of this large household was quiet, always smiling and talked very sweetly with everyone in contrast to mamma, who was tall, handsome, ethical, a senior member of congress in those days and a follower of Arya Samaj. All these qualities have made him a kind of authority and a very respectable position in the society. Maami’s life was completely within the family, making pickles and chips. Her love and tenderness made even small household events feel like celebrations. The thing with joint families is that nobody is really close to anybody and yet no one was an outsider either. Everything belonged to everyone. I wonder among so many brother-in-laws, sister-in-laws, nephews and nieces, if maami ever found a moment to herself.
Those were the days when one person earned and the whole family ate. There were three brothers and three sisters in maama’s house along with a host of other relatives. The eldest maama, Kalicharan Pradhan was a freedom fighter and neglected his government job due to his ideologies. But he took good care of his family. The middle maama lived in a village named Hamidpur. He was a wrestler and an actor in Ramlila. The youngest brother was a handsome and powerful income tax officer and the entire expenditure of the family was on him. He bought a land in the village and asked the middle brother to stay there and do farming. The eldest maama never worked but was highly respected because of his ideologies and freedom fighter mentality. The elder maama had four daughters. The eldest one died in a fire caused by a small lantern. The second one, who lived close by was suffering from some illness which did not allow her to eat much. She was barren. Her husband, a thorough gentleman often bought toffees for the children. His pockets were always filled with sweets. If on any occasion there were more children at home he used to bring tin full of toffees from Mangaram. The third one was married to a junior engineer from a rich family. Her mother-in-law was a cruel woman who kept abusing her for not bringing sufficient dowry. They had only one son – young and handsome who wanted to become a doctor but was infected by typhoid at the prime of his youth. Those were the days when being taken to a hospital was the last thing one would do after trying every treatment at home from home made medicines to treatment by self-made doctors.
Maama was so strict that the never talked with his children. Maami on the other hand was so full of love. She gave certain edible items that were not to be taken in typhoid. Somehow when he failed to survive all the blame fell on maami. I wonder what her mistake was – too much love and affection towards her family and children or not trying to impose strictness.
In a huge house near Hawa Mahal in Nayapura in Bhopal, the most memorable thing is the huge courtyard painted with cow dung. It had a very big washing place where utensils were washed and small children were bathed and sometimes clothes were also cleansed. The courtyard had three sides with long verandahs supported by heavy pillars behind which were a few rooms. Those were the times when nobody needed rooms as the whole life was spreading and breathing in the courtyard and verandahs. In summer people slept in courtyards and in winter in the verandahs. The courtyard was witness to all festivals, family gatherings, marriages etc. Guests were also served in the courtyard or verandahs. Towards the right of the courtyard was a big kitchen which had a platform painted with cow dung. On another platform were two to three chulahs (fire place). No one from the family had permission to enter the kitchen or touch anything except maami and misrani (maid help) that too after taking bath and wearing a special kind of saree. Untouchabilty was with food also. Paratha was considered pure while roti was considered untouchable. Cooking in those days was very interesting. First the curry was made, followed by puri or paratha. It was only then that the dal was placed on the stove. Last of all came the roti after making which the kitchen became untouchable and had to be cleansed once again with cow dung paste before the next cooking. Almost never was dal or roti cooked in the evening. Only puri was made if needed. That was why woman often cooked double amount of food for unexpected guests. The person eating often sat on a cotton carpet next to the cooking platform. The women cooking on the kitchen platform threw the chapattis directly on the brass plates of those who sat to eat as touching anything was prohibited. That was the time when people never used to eat roti or dal in another household except among their own clan. Washing hands in the washing tray was very interesting for the children as they were to wash their hands using a big lotta (tumbler) touching it only using their elbows. It was a kind of circus for the children. The breakfast was often puri or paratha with very tasty pickles. Paratha is a weakness of mine even now as that taste still lingers in my mouth.
Maama’s way of showing love was entirely different. He used to sit early morning to teach arithmetic. His style of teaching was very strange as he was scolding more than teaching. After that he used to give Ikkanni (Six paise) to each of us. When the ten paise coin came that became the daily pocket money. Maami made sure that we didn’t spend all of our money at once. Sometimes she would ask us to bring jelebi for two paise. Two paise was a big wealth those days. How much would one eat with a frock full of berries or colourful ice candies in summer? There was a very typical kind of sweet sold those days on thick wooden rods. It was a colourful rope like sweet twirled around the stick. When somebody bought it the vendor used to unwind a small piece candy from the stick and would make it into a bird or an animal. He was so skilled in his art that he hardly took a few seconds to make that toy. Those sweets were so tiny and beautiful that one finds it difficult to eat it soon after buying. There were also spicy and savoury churan wallahs who used to sell some kind of powder in a paper. Schools those days were a walkable distance and hence it was easy to do such shopping on the way to school. These could be easily eaten in the classroom or the road itself.
The classrooms were lined with taatpatti’s (cotton carpets) for the children to sit. Bigger classrooms were provided with desks. The right side of the desk contained a hole where the children used to make and keep ink. Ink in those days was available in the form of tablets which was melted in water in the given space on the desk. The children used reed pens sharpened on one side for writing. Making this kalam (pen) and ink was an art in itself but writing with them was the biggest fun in life. Some children used holder pens which was not very common in those days. By evening when children returned they used to be covered with ink.
Once I was so angry with maami for making me put my Ikkanni in the penny bank that I broke it and took the entire rupaiya to school. I never imagined that all the coins would come to more than one rupee. I didn’t realise that it was such a big amount. I spent the entire day eating and treating other children, but I still seemed to have coins in my pocket. I never thought maami would find the broken penny box. By the time I reached home there were still coins in my cotton bag that hung on my shoulder. My maami’s style of punishment was very strange. She never scolded. She just stopped talking altogether. But her silence was the biggest punishment for me. Children had a special sense to understand the purity of love and they knew how to reciprocate it.
What could be a real taste – the taste of childhood or the taste which we have received life long? I can still go for berries and kabith and ignore other fruits like apples and grapes. I still have the taste of colourful ice candy and spicy savoury churan on my tongue. I would still go for thick parathas compared to any pizza. Childhood cannot understand the difference between oneness and otherness. They know only one language – LOVE. I have no idea which God made maami, who is so full of love inspite of her own pain and sorrows. I don’t know where she has hidden her sorrows as I can only remember her smiling face. I can’t imagine how a person can live an entire life without a single grudge or anger.
Tuk….. Tuk…. Chuurrr….. Tuk… Tuk…. As soon as the bullock cart slowed down, out jumped Anil, Atul and the darling of elder maami. “Oh! What are you doing children? Hey Girl, at least you should have some sense,” said youngest mausi (mother’s sister) exasperated. Ignoring the irritation of younger mausi six small feet started running, “Let’s see who overtakes the cart first.” Anil with his long legs ran fast ahead. After a few minutes her legs became weary. “Oh! Forget about it. Anil brother has got a genie in his control. Just the other day he was saying he got flying notes”. She tried her best to pull her extremely tired legs forward, but in vain. The marks of the cart wheel soon left her behind. The driver kaka slowed down the cart and asked us to climb in. Whenever younger mausi wanted to go to middle maama’s house in Hamidpur with her kids, a bullock cart was sent to her from the village and badi maami sent me along with them. Both her sons Anil and Atul are good friends of mine. Many times on the way the children got off the cart and ran along much to the irritation of younger mausi. “This girl has been spoiled beyond the point of correction by the sister-in-law,” she grumbled. But her grumbling hardly had any effect on me. Mausi had six daughters of her own along with these two sons. All of whom were silent, obedient, homely and well brought girls, unlike me who was all tomboyish. The younger maama had planned his future well. He bought a land in the village and had asked middle maama to take care of it. Grains for the entire family came from here. Whenever mother came to bade maama’s house she always visited the village. Summer vacation was always spent here. Youngest maama’s children came here too. The middle mamma was a wrestler by profession, an actor in Ramlila and a local political leader. The middle maami was a short and simple lady. They had adopted the youngest mausi’s daughter as they were childless.
The ride on the bullock cart was a thrilling experience and it was difficult to stay quiet for long. The bulls were healthy and strong. The bells on their neck rang in rhythm with the sound of the wheels. Standing on the wooden plank of the cart and trying to maintain balance was real fun. One could feel ticklish under the soul of the feet. Mausi continued with her grumbling. “Keep quiet. Don’t make noise. Are you going to stop or not?” But no one seemed to care. On reaching Hamidpur, another member joined the threesome, Lal Kaka. He was the youngest son of youngest mamma. All the four children were almost the same age and spent all their time running, climbing trees, roaming around aimlessly or throwing stones at mango and tamarind trees and eating them raw. There were other girls in the large family too who were quiet in nature and spent most of their time either talking or laughing. Middle maama was very strict with all the girls. He used to ask everyone to cover their heads but never said a word to me, as I was the darling of badi maami. It would upset badi maami if anyone said anything to me.
Village life was quite different. Day starts early and children all used to enter the jungle with lotta (brass pot) in their hand but often forget why they were there and engage themselves in picking up raw mangoes and tamarinds. By then the day would break and they would return with these fruits they have picked without washing their hands or brushing. Everyone had to clean their lottas with ash powder and then mamma would give everyone a piece of coal each, which they had to grind in the mouth itself and clean their teeth. The children found this very amusing. Children used to have their bath by the well itself where some worker of mamma would draw water from the well and pour on their heads. Lal kaka was very interested in drawing water from the well but mostly ended up dropping the bucket into the well. Taking out the bucket from the well was not an easy task for maama’s workers. There was an unwritten rule in joint families that no one could beat his own children in front of others. After bath a fixed tasty lunch awaited everyone – crispy parathas with mango chutney. This was followed by another tour of the jungle.
Every tree had a personality of its own and it talked to each child in its own way. The trees beckon the children to climb them. Once the children were up, the trees would start dancing. By then someone would come to call them, as it was day time and the loo (hot winds) had begun to blow. Children were not allowed outside at this time. The elders used this time to doze. The elder brothers and sisters had some chore or the other to do. But how were the children supposed to pass their time. Lal kaka knew a number of ghost stories. He used to gather everyone into the granary where everyone took their seats on wheat drums and Lal kaka would then narrate his stories of ghosts with sound effects and all.
Evening was a time when mamma and the elders gathered around to talk. Children were not allowed to go outside for fear of snakes and scorpions. It was boring to hear the elders talk as they were not matters of any interest to the children. Evenings were very sad. I never liked it. A feeling of uneasiness… a kind of pain… a need for wanting to break free and run into the night. Everyone was soon lying down to sleep on their charpoys (bed) in the courtyard. Children in smaller charpoys. Some told stories, some cracked jokes while some were fast asleep. The picture of the village in my mind soon began to fade into the night only to be replaced by the setting sun and the rising moon.
Leaves of the peepal
Rising moon on the wall
Oh girls it’s saavan (rainy season). Let’s hang the swings on the verandah. All of you can swing but you have to learn the saavan song.
On hearing maami, Rekha jiji went inside and closed the door to her room ignoring her. How interesting was it to swing. What kind of a girl would always like to remain in a closed room? She goes for dance classes, smiles at everyone there but at home she always sits in her room. It was interesting to watch maami pasting the cow dung and mud mixture on the biggest wall in the courtyard with such ease as though someone was filling colour in the sky. Every festival was a great event in maami’s house. She tried to involve everyone in the festivities. During the month of saavan everyone has to make rakhi for the upcoming raksha bandhan. We used to make raakhi with small cardboards, cotton, golden threads and gum made by boiling wheat flour. Maami would sometimes manage to get us an old postcard or cloth from an old saree. “I don’t have brothers, so why make raakhi?” I argued, trying my best to avoid making raakhis. But my argument was in vain.
Those days we eagerly waited for the mela which took place during Teej or Naag Panchami. The memory of mela is still embedded deep in my mind. All the children would wake up early in the morning and do their morning routines without any fuss. Then they would plead with the elders for money. Some would give ikkanni, some dhoanni, maximum was attanni. One rupee was the biggest amount. The children were always accompanied to the mela by an elder or two. Mostly it was younger maami who accompanied the children as she was very good at taking care of them. She also had the maximum number of children in the family.
Bullock carts were already waiting at the gates. Everyone was bursting with excitement. The mela was filled with all kinds of things from small brass utensils, to bamboo flutes, brass snakes, balloons, balls, pinwheels, drums covered with animal skin etc. The elder girls wanted to stop at the stalls which sold bangles, bindhis and artificial ornaments but the younger children were more interested in roaming around, looking at different kinds of people, running after each other and getting a ride on the biggest attraction in the mela – the giant wheel. Nobody felt tired nor did anyone stop to have any proper meals. Everyone was more into small snacks like jelebi, samosa etc which could easily be eaten while walking as it was more fun that way. Having spent everything to the very last penny and pockets filled with a few senseless things they returned home. The excitement of the mela was still high and would last for quite a few days. They had so much to talk and dream about in the coming days.
Education or schooling was not a burden in those days. Life in itself was an open book from which we had so much to learn. Dusshera would soon arrive and the women of the house were busy with their cleaning. This was the time for Ramleela too. Ramleela was extremely interesting and the functions at the Kayastha Sabha were nothing less. This was the time when Rekha Jiji would perform her dance on the theme of Sabari. The story goes this way. Sabari would bite a berry and give to Rama to eat which he obliges. But Lakshman on the other hand would throw away the berry without Rama noticing. A small boy was found to do the role of Rama but they couldn’t find anyone to do the part of Lakshman. Finally I was asked to play the part of Lakshman and was seated along with Rama on the stage. The performance began and Sabari having bitten a berry offered it to Rama, which he took and ate with a smile But Lakshman was not interested in eating the leftover of another person so he took it and threw it quietly behind. Doing my very first role on stage, though small and facing the audience was a very thrilling experience which I enjoyed thoroughly. I felt as though I was doing the leading role as the audience clapped the most when Lakshman threw down his berry. Maybe they were happy to see the confidence of a small child.