My annual pilgrimage to Torangaam, my mosaal, Baa’s childhood home, during the summer vacation was a great time to renew my friendship with Chhagan Mama who lived in a nearby village called Ajrai. Chhagan Mama was Baa’s first cousin – the only son of her father’s sister, Icchha Fui. Icchha Fui had been widowed at a very early age. The prevalent social customs dictated shaving her head completely, wearing a red saree and a blouse, keeping her shaved head covered and generally being subservient to all the menfolk of the village, including her son Chhagan.
We had arrived from Bombay that morning laden with goodies Baa had got for her two dozen cousins, including several packs of ice halwa, a sweet I loved. Getting off the train at Gandevi, Baa had also picked up sev khamani from good old Paania’s shop before climbing into the bullock cart that would make its way to Torangaam. The taste of this local Gandevi savory must have lingered in her mouth despite spending a good 20 years in Bombay. The sheer joy of being able to buy a big pack of sev khamani would have thrilled her. I didn’t care much for it. And did I ever care to know if Baa received a fair share of sev khamani when she was growing up? For me, it was drilled in my mind that mothers were noble creatures with no desires of their own except caring for the menfolk – father, husband – and the children.
As soon as the initial excitement of meeting everyone and the ritual of distribution of sweets was done with, I asked Baa: “When will Chhagan Mama come?”
“He will be here tomorrow Bharat, now go and play with your mamas and maasis. Now go..o…o”, she shooed me away.
Strictly speaking, these mamas or maasis, my uncles and aunts, were Baa’s first cousins. The age gap between her father, Kakuji, and Kakuji’s youngest brother, Nana Kaka, was so wide that by the time some of her younger uncles got married and had kids, Baa herself, Lalee as she was called, already had children of her own. Some of my mamas and maasis were much younger to me but Baa insisted that I address them as so-and-so mama or so-and-so maasi even while playing with them. It was hilarious at times. My youngest maasi was a good 10 years younger to me!
I was a little star in Torangaam, 10-year-old boy wonder from the big city. Baa’s father, Kasanji Lalji, or Kakuji as he was called in the family, adored me, as did all of her uncles and their wives. It may have had something to do with me being first male child of Lalee, eldest daughter of retired school head master Kasanji Lalji of Torangaam. And that I had the blessing of the goddess Saraswati on my young head – my skills on my toy-like stringed instrument called Bulbul Tarang were widely admired as were my scholastic achievements.
But that was not enough for these little aunts and uncles to share the ice halwa with me. Bharat is from Bombay, he gorges on this all the time, they must have reasoned. Little did they know the sweets were for special occasions like this one, when Baa came home once a year to see her beloved father.
“But will Chhagan Mama take me to Ajrai on his bicycle this time?” My impatience was clearly irritating her but Baa just nodded.
Dinner comprised brown rice with daal and some papad but did I ever relish such mundane fare? Baa had brought with her some Parle glucose biscuits that she quietly slipped in my pocket. “Don’t make a fuss in everyone’s presence today,” she admonished me. “It is ok; he will get used to the rice and daal from tomorrow,” she muttered to herself.
Kakuji’s eyes literally dripped with love watching his first grandson play around in the old house. The next day he quietly led me to the little dark room where he always saved some of the choicest ripe mangoes from that year’s harvest for me. And no one except his Bhabhi, wife of his younger brother, knew about the mouth-watering laddoos that he had stored neatly in a brass jar, exclusively for Baba – that was me, Bharat, apple of his eye. The schoolmaster had been a widower most of his adult life. He doted on his daughter which made her first-born son extra special. Probably that is why he also cared a lot for Ichchha Fui, his own widowed sister and Chhagan Mama’s mother, living in Ajrai.
Kakuji was a short statured man, in his 60s. He spent the entire day clad in a dhoti, his chest bare. But the older denizens of the village remembered him as an impeccably attired man of letters – dazzling white dhoti with a black bundy, a half-sleeved shirt made of coarse cloth, a black cap firmly on his head and a carved stick in his hand. He was the first man to earn a matriculate degree in the village and the whole village was proud of its schoolmaster.
But why did he always ignore Chhagan Mama whenever he came to visit him? He knew Chhagan would visit Torangaam the very next day to meet me. But there was clearly more to his dislike than that fact that I was invariably whisked off to Ajrai by Chhagan Mama. I didn’t know why then, nor did I care to know.
At bedtime, Kakuji tiptoed out to the front yard to my bed. “Baba, do you really want to go with Chhagan Mama tomorrow to Ajrai? Why don’t you spend time here and play with other children? I will give you some more of those laddoos I got made specially for you.”
But by the time he finished running his hand over my head, I was fast asleep.
I woke up to the sweet, rhythmic chirping of birds. Baa’s youngest uncle, Nana, much younger than Baa herself, walked up to me. “Ay Baba, did you sleep well? “
I merely nodded and quickly got up and went inside the house. In a distant corner I saw Baa, deep in conversation with her father. They obviously didn’t expect me to get up so early.
It was strange to find them discussing something that was so melancholic. My grandfather was trying to contain his tears while Baa kept comforting him by patting his back. Then they saw me walking towards them.
“Arrey Baba, you’re up so early? You must be hungry. You didn’t eat any daal rice at dinner yesterday.”
Kakuji frowned, looking indulgently at me.
A cat ran past; through the longish corridor, overturning a bowl of milk with a din that woke everyone up. The unwelcome entry of the cat broke up the maudlin conversation that the father-daughter duo was engaged in. I never understood why Kakuji resorted to bursting into tears at the slightest provocation. My Baa also had inherited this trait from him.
Nana too walked by, swatting away flies with a large handkerchief “So Lalee, I hope everything is ok with Nayak?” Sons-in-law were customarily referred to as ‘Nayak’ as a sign of respect. “Once in a while Bhimbhai should also visit us, kem?”
I had a mosquito bite on my cheek that I kept touching with my little finger.
“Hey, don’t scratch that. The boil will get bigger and painful,” advised Kaki, the wife of Baa’s eldest uncle. I started brushing my teeth with a babool twig. I hated the taste of the water drawn from the village well. I hastily gargled and spat out the mouthful of water.
By now, most of the family members were up. Kaki squatted and positioned herself at the wood-fired choola to make tea in an oversized pot. The sweet aroma of the boiling tea, steeped in smoky charcoal, filled the kitchen. For some strange reason I found this smell as intoxicating as my music. As much as I detested the rice–daal dinner, I looked forward to this process of making tea, soaking in the aroma. The metal cups would sit precariously on the uneven dry cow dung-plastered flooring of the kitchen and Kaki made sure that I did not spill the tea by helping me place the cup properly. “Now you are ok, Baba, drink up!” she commanded.
The huge figure of Mohan Kaka, Kaki’s husband framed the entry passage of the kitchen. His gravel voice and weather-beaten face enhanced his personality. He was ready to leave for the farm, his old mud coloured hard shoes in place, a big stick in his hand and wearing a bundy to cover his torso.
“Arrey Baba, you were fast asleep when I came home last night. I suppose you are all right.” And then tapping my head, “We are so happy that you topped your class once again.”
Turning to Kaki he added “Lalee’s boy is smart, just like his grandfather”. Mohan Kaka said this loud enough for the other kids to hear. His four sons were barely dragging their butts at school.
I had not learnt the etiquette to respond to such words of admiration. I just smiled impishly and left the kitchen.
The entire Lalbhai clan had finished their morning tea when in walked Nana Kaka again. The ratio of men to women had always been skewed in favor of men who outnumbered women drastically. Female infanticide was a fact of life. Not just in the Lalbhai family but in virtually all the families some of the eligible men could never find a match and remained bachelors through their lives.
Nana Kaka was one such unfortunate reluctant bachelor. His daily routine comprised getting up late, going through the morning routine, reciting some Sanskrit shlokas and then throughout the day watching people passing by the main front door. Being slightly built he could not have made a good farmer either.
But Nana Kaka had made a name for himself, particularly in helping out the women in the neighborhood. His eagerness to look after the well being of his sister-in-law – our Kaki – would not have gone down well with Kaki’s husband.
Presently Nana Kaka entered the kitchen after everyone was gone, steadied his little piece of cloth over his left shoulder and cosied up to Kaki. “Arrey my Bhabhi, you are simply killing yourself working all morning, making tea for all. Learn to relax a bit sometimes. Let me help you.” He then promptly bent his body forward and started gathering the empty cups.
This was nothing new for Kaki – these overtures – and for a lone woman in a male dominated household; there was no one to complain to.
“No no, that is all right. I am quite used to it. Please don’t bother.” And she came close to Nana and adroitly wrested the cups back from Nana Kaka that he had started gathering. The earthy aroma of sweat from Kaki’s body was all the elixir that Nana could hope for and that was it.
But didn’t Kaki relish the attention he showered on her the day she had a fever? There was no one at home that afternoon and she felt terribly sick. Nana Kaka fussed relentlessly over her, “Bhabhi, bhabhi, you relax; I will take care of you,” caressing her long, disheveled stresses and repeatedly placing his palm over her burning forehead. Mohan Kaka would never know. Did he ever care for her, except cuddling up with her in that dark room night after night? Did Kaki care for Nana Kaka? We would never know.
As Nana Kaka, muttering Lord Krishna’s shloka – Karmani ev adhikaarastey…- made his way out of the kitchen, he stole a glance at his Bhabhi from the corner of his eye and settled back in his favorite chair in the verandah at the main door of the house.
Baa had no other household duties here, so she went ahead and got me ready. She walked up to her father and offered him another round of tea – spicy, boiled with ginger, cardamom and lots of sugar, the way he liked. Who else would know the exact recipe of the tea that he loved? Poor Kakuji – yes that is how she too addressed him. He surely must be getting lost in this joint family with dozens of people milling around.
It was 10 o’clock but there was no sign of Chhagan Mama. ‘Wasn’t he aware of our arrival plans from Bombay?” wondered Baa.
I crept close to her and asked, “When will Chhagan Mama come, Baa?”
“Any time now, dikraa. Go and play for a while. Have you had your milk?”
But I ignored her question and ran out to find someone to play with. There was a whole bunch of kids playing in the wada at the back of the house, under a tamarind tree.
The bullocks were relaxing in the shade, gently chewing away at the grass and the cart was reclined in a slanting position where the kids were playing around.
The wada was also the space where the toilet was, fashioned out of pieces of old tin sheds and that smelled of human faeces. Every morning, the ‘cleaners’, scavengers from the lower castes, would come to collect the open receptacles from underneath the toilet, carry them away, full of faeces, on their head, clean them and bring them back.
The taboo against having a toilet inside the house had also found its way into the early designs of apartments in Mumbai. The toilets were positioned away from the kitchen and the approach was usually shielded from the apartment by an additional wall.
As I was debating whether to stay or go indoors, Manu, one of my young mamas, rushed to me and handed me a few pods of ‘vilayati imli’, as we called this species of sweet tamarind. “Come, let’s play hide and seek”.
Instead, I let out a cry of joy for I had sighted Chhagan Mama slowly cycling his way in, through the wada towards the back door, with a broad smile on his dark face. I started running towards the bicycle only to be held back by Kakuji remonstrating from somewhere deep inside the house. “Easy Baba, you will hurt yourself!” How was he able to see Chhagan cycling in from inside the house?
Chhagan Mama briskly parked his bicycle next to the wall, ran towards me and lifted me up, laughing mischievously. “Oh Baba, so you have also come? I thought only your Baa would be here!”
I was ecstatic.
No one else apparently noticed Chhagan Mama arriving except me, Baa and Kakuji, who didn’t emerge from wherever he was inside the house. No one welcomed him and there was no semblance of greeting except for a faint smile on Kaki’s face. Baa offered him the customary glass of water as he entered the house with me in his arms.
“How are you Lalee? How was the train journey? And how is my respected Nayak at Bombay? He too should visit us sometimes,” he said in quick succession.
“All are well, Chhagan. How is Fui Baa?”
“Oh, she is all right, getting old now. But she asked me to convey to you that she could still make your favorite dudheli! Come with me to Ajrai, Lalee.”
Ichchha Fui was a great cook. After the untimely demise of Baa’s mother it was she who took care of the child, groomed her, trained her in all of the ‘good’ behaviours and qualities befitting an ideal daughter, wife and a mother. Baa turned out to be exactly that – an obedient daughter, a devoted wife and a loving mother. Poor Baa. Ichchha Fui had been a mother to her. But staying at Ajrai even for a few days would be hard on her Kakuji. After all, she visited him only once a year.
Chhagan did not really expect her to accept his invitation; “But Baba will surely be coming with me to Ajrai, right Baba?”
I slid down his arms and ran to Baa “Yes, of course, right Baa?”
“Oh, Chhagan Mama you are so wonderful!” I was thrilled.
“Go and get your thailaa.” My cloth bag was already packed and ready.
I ran inside the house. Kakuji, seated on a swing, cautioned me. “Be careful Baba. You may trip and injure yourself. And don’t overstay there at Ajrai – come back to Torangaam tomorrow.”
I had no time for niceties.
Chhagan Mama was a tall, dark, handsome man in his early 40s, his wavy shoulder length, oiled, jet-black hair, meticulously combed. And an accomplished musician – the magic of his fingers on the harmonium and tabla was legendary. His mouth was always crimson red with the paan he chewed throughout the day. He wore a blue bundy with a carefully pressed kurtaa and a matching pleated dhoti and Kolhapuri chappals. Even his gait exuded a lilting rhythm that many a young girl was known to have swooned over.
“Come Baba, hop on to the front seat of the bicycle. Say goodbye to your Baa”. Chhagan commanded.
“Arrey Chhagan bhai, but have some tea,” Baa pleaded but we were already on our way through the sprawling wada. She kept watching the bicycle disappear through the low makeshift gate at the far end of the wada.
It was late afternoon but the relentless sun was hot enough to scald the skin of the bicycle riders. We were on our way to Ajrai, through mango and chickoo gardens, crossing a tiny rivulet and then to the other side of the state highway.
In comparison to Torangaam, Ajrai could only really be called a hamlet of sorts, but it had bigger houses. Situated on the banks of the mighty Ambika, it boasted of a large number of lakhpatis, moneyed men who had made their fortune in the timber trade. The mango and chickoo gardens were as dense as the ones in Torangaam but the land was more fertile and yielded a bountiful crop. Each monsoon provoked the Ambika into overflowing its banks at least once during the season. But the villagers had learnt to live with the temporary misery and thanked the Lord for the ensuing rich crop year after year.
Right in the middle of the row of houses on one side was Ichchha Fui’s house where she had lived ever since her marriage to Bhagu Fua decades ago. The peculiar shape of the house had earned the label of ‘waghmukhi’, or tiger head-shaped house. It was wide in the front and narrow towards the back. Superstitious villagers believed such houses were jinxed. The other peculiar shape called ‘gaumukhi’ however was sacred – it had the shape of the head of a cow – narrow in the front and wider towards the back.
The events surrounding the untimely death of Bhagu Fua during the plague many years ago was a distant memory now. People blamed it on their ‘waghmukhi’ house. Icchha Fui’s only worldly possessions were the house, some land and Chhagan. She walked with permanently bent knees, letting out “aai haai” every time she got up from her crossed leg position on the floor. But despite the age her eyesight was remarkable. She still read the Ramayan every day.
The leisurely bicycle ride brought us to the doorstep of Ichchha Fui’s house. The heat of the sun had mellowed to a tolerable level. My buttocks had started hurting with the long ride on that solid steel bar that served as my seat.
“Welcome, welcome my child!” Ichchha Fui was thrilled to see me after a year. She was clad in her usual red saree, red blouse and her beaming face covered with the pallu of the saree.
I jumped off the bicycle and bowed to touch her feet. She held me close and kissed me on each cheek.
“Fui Baa! Will you make my favorite dudheli?” my priorities were firm.
“Of course, Baba, I have made all the preparations,” she said and we all walked into the dingy house.
As I ran through the length of the house from the front door to the back door, Ichchha Fui weighed her words as she turned to Chhagan. “Do you have to go to Gandevi this evening too?”
She didn’t sound very hopeful.
“Baa, you know I have to go today but I promise I will spend the whole day tomorrow with Baba and you.” Fui’s eyes fell but she took his reply in her stride.
I relished the attention they showered on me. Chhagan Mama went to the verandah, cupped his hands and called out to his neighbour across the little street. “Arrey Laalu, look who is here! Get your Bulbul Tarang tomorrow morning, Baba will play some new songs for us. But do it tomorrow morning… no no, not now, Baba is tired.”
Turning to me, “Baba, I have to go but you relax and talk to Fui all about your school and your friends and everything. We will have a proper music baithak tomorrow morning, ok?” and soon left on his bicycle. That was the routine; I knew, and didn’t say anything.
Chhagan Mama left, pedalling his bicycle once again. I watched the bicycle until it disappeared at the turn. I loved to play with the little dynamo attached to the rear tyre of the bicycle when it was parked in the house, I would rotate the rear wheel by pedalling with my hand faster and faster till the little headlight glowed. It was fun – turning the rear wheel to generate electricity. “I will try it out tomorrow for sure.” I promised myself.
After a quick dinner, Ichchha Fui sang an old lullaby and caressed my hair till I fell asleep.
Late at night I thought I felt someone enter the house; fumble with the light switch and a strange nauseating stink permeating the little house. Maybe that was a dream, I told myself.
I woke up to the sound of bhajans by Ichchha Fui at dawn. Her face looked radiant as she sang, unmindful of the occasional off-key phrases. I lay in bed, listening and watching her pull up the edge of her red saree that occasionally slid off her shaven head. She must have looked absolutely stunning when she was young, I remembered Baa saying.
Chhagan Mama was still snoring in his bed. I sprang to my feet and dashed to the bathroom to brush my teeth and freshen up.
Today I would play the latest songs I had set on my Bulbul Tarang this year, with Chhagan Mama accompanying me on the tabla. I had no clue when the tabla wizard got some spare time to practice the intricate patterns of rhythm.
Perhaps there were many more missing clues about him and his routine.
Ichchha Fui handed me a glass of warm milk, saying “Little boys drink milk, not tea,” and ran her fingers over my head as I finished the milk in one go. “Slowly dear, not so fast”.
I went over to the front verandah and sat there on the wooden bench gazing at Laalu’s door across the street. In the stillness of the early morning I could hear the faint sounds of river flowing by the village. A cowherd was slowly guiding his herd of cows, followed by a dog, to the grazing fields not very far from Ajrai village. He whistled as he herded the cows safely to the far end of the village and then finally turned and disappeared. The dust kicked up by the herd looked magical in the soft morning sunlight. How nice it would be to go with the herd!
“Kem chhe Baba?” greeted Chhagan Mama from behind, startling me.
“Let us get ready for the music baithak. Fui Baa will bathe you now.”
After the bathing ritual, I was back in the front room to see Laalu ready with his small, black polished Bulbul Tarang. Chhagan Mama was grinning as I took the instrument on my lap and strummed the strings.
“The strings need to be tuned properly. No one seems to understand here,” I announced like a great knowledgeable senior musician.
Chhagan Mama uncovered the pair of tablas lying in the corner and sat to my right, ready to perform with his favorite nephew.
“Wah!” Laalu couldn’t hide his admiration as I played the latest Hindi film songs. How could this boy play so well and still top his class at studies?
Finding someone who appreciated my skill on the little Bulbul Tarang was a thrilling experience. Chhagan Mama, being a musician himself, could easily see me as a budding musician, like himself. No one had taught either of us the finer nuances of music.
“It is a gift of God,” Chhagan said to Laloo; as he played his tabla with me.
At the end of the mini concert, Laalu told me to keep the instrument with me for as long as I wanted. Very generous of Laalu!
The sweet aroma of fresh dudheli wafting from the kitchen at the back was a signal for me to make a dash for lunch. Fui was delighted to see the young boy gobble up innumerable chunks of dudheli.
A loud disagreeable burp made Fui a bit cautious. “Baba that should be enough. You can have them again at dinner, ok?”
Right then the sound of a bullock cart at the front door surprised us.
My impatient grandfather had sent the bullock cart specially to bring his darling boy back to Torangaam.
“What is the big hurry, Ravji?” Fui enquired of the cart driver.
“I am not sure but Kasan Master said there was going to be some feast in the evening so Baba should not miss it,” Ravji’s reply was not convincing.
Chhagan Mama looked at his mother in disbelief. “Neither Mama nor Lalee mentioned anything about the feast this evening. Anyway, Kakuji wants it that way; let him go.”
Ichchha Fui quickly wrapped a few chunks of dudheli in a box and readied me for the unexpected journey back to Torangaam.
I glanced one last time at the Bulbul Tarang lying in a corner in the front room and hopped onto the bullock cart.
Ichchha Fui burped softly, took the whole affair in her stride and went about her chores.
From a distance I saw Chhagan Mama heading for his bicycle. He had clearly changed his plans and would be now riding to Gandevi. Ichchha Fui cast a glance in his direction and retired indoors as the maid entered to clean up the kitchen.
The feast that grandpa had promised turned out to be a damp squib. To me it didn’t make any sense at all. He could have given me the two big pieces of ghee laddoo any other day. “I got them made specially for you, Baba,” he explained as he placed the laddoos on my palm.
“Lalee look who’s here! Our Baba is back from Ajrai.” he announced. His mischief shone through.
Baa instantly knew why Kakuji had been so over-anxious to bring me back in a hurry. She knew he never liked Chhagan whiling away his time playing the tabla there at Gandevi, neglecting the care of his family land.
“Bad behaviour! What if our Bharat gets drawn into the vulgar musical pursuits with Chhagan? I don’t want him to go astray like Chhagan,” he had reasoned.
Musicians have a way of sulking. I didn’t go to play with the kids but sat in the corner of the room and tried to imagine myself playing to an appreciative audience. Baa tried to comfort me by buying a stick of ice candy from the local vendor but I sulked, avoided the daal-rice dinner and slept early.
A big commotion in the village woke everyone up early next morning. Many villagers came running from the river end of the village shouting, “They killed Allu Kaka, they killed Allu Kaka!”
Kakuji adjusted his crumpled dhoti, went out to the front door and hailed Manu who came running ahead of the crowd. “Allu kaka was murdered at his mango orchard,” Manu yelled as he ran past.
The stealing of mangoes at night was quite common in the mango orchards. Allu Kaka, who lived across the street, was quite well known all over the taluka for his eccentric ways. Instead of hiring guards for his little orchard he himself slept in a little hut there.
The thieves came just before dawn at his orchard, stuffed his mouth with a piece of cloth, tied him up to his cot, and used the long barge pole-type plucking sticks to gather the mangoes from all the trees in his orchard. It was a mystery how the eccentric Allu Kaka freed himself and challenged the thieves. Fearing immediate alarm that Allu Kaka might raise, they attacked him with axes and left him bleeding on the ground before escaping with the loot.
The guards posted at a nearby orchard rescued Allu Kaka and brought him back to the village at dawn in a makeshift stretcher, but the old man succumbed to the injuries as they entered the village from the river end.
A pall of gloom fell over the village. Allu Kaka’s aged wife, Pali, was a mother figure to everyone in the village. She was numb with shock. Satish, her son and one of my friends, sat next to his blank-faced mother unable to comprehend the gravity of the situation. Satish’s elder brother went to Gandevi police station with his friends to completing the formalities.
I had this terrible fear of dead bodies. What if the dead guy suddenly wakes up? Someone asked me to go to Satish and comfort him, but I wouldn’t. I was frozen with fear by the earth shattering, dramatised wailing noise made by the rudaali women, professional mourners who had made their entry into the village,
“Oh, Allu Kaka, why did you leave us? Now who will be a father figure to us?” they cried at the top of their voice, beating their breasts. Pali Kaki was now crying uncontrollably. My Baa and other women from the village tried to comfort her.
I didn’t want to witness the proceedings any further and decided to spend all my time on the cart parked in the wada at the back of the house. I had my pack of playing cards for company. I was still peeved at the way grandpa had schemed to bring me back from Ajrai.
I did not go in the house for lunch either. No one remembered to call me. Everyone, including my Baa had been attending to the rituals at Allu Kaka’s place.
I finally fell asleep in the cushioned seat of the cart stuffed with hay.
On returning to the house I found my mother had gone berserk looking for me. I was nowhere to be found. It was Manu who suggested they check the wada.
“Why did you hide there, Baba? You have not had your lunch. Look at his face!” Baa fussed.
After a late lunch I was in no mood for a nap. Baa too decided to forgo hers. Getting my spirits up was her prime concern.
She came up to me and proposed “Ay Baba, let us go to the market in Gandevi and buy new chappals for you. Ganapat, the cobbler’s chappals; nobody makes them like he does!”
She knew I had a weakness for shoes and chappals, just like my father. But my father’s fascination with shoes was limited to brown shoes. He always laughed off any suggestion of black shoes. “Ungainly, dark and black as the water buffalo!”
I perked up at the mention of new chappals and I ran off to get ready to go to Gandevi with Baa.
Kakuji, her partner in the conspiracy, promptly arranged for a special bullock cart for us.
The bullocks were the latest to be trained for the job – Manu had confided to me while proudly showing me the half a dozen bulls lazing in the shade.
Hope Ravji, the bullock cart driver, is able to control the young bulls – Baa was concerned. I sat next to the driver in the front seat and enjoyed the ride savoring the greenery around.
An old black car appeared on the road coming in our direction. Ravji narrowed his eyes and slowed down for the car to pass, bent sideways to confirm that it indeed was the car of the local doctor, Ajit Desai, who had his clinic at Gandevi.
“I wonder who would be so ill to summon Ajit Doctor,” mumbled Ravji and drove on through the mini dust storm that the passing car had created.
“It must be Pali Baa. Hope she is able to pull herself through all this without any new health issues, Hare Krishna…” Baa intoned.
The bullock cart made its way through the busy and noisy street known as Taank Street, with rows of shops of craftsmen who hammered away on brass plates to fashion assorted kitchen utensils. The street echoed with the cacophony of strange rhythmic sounds of craftsmen hammering away. The musician in me found the rhythm patterns interesting.
It was dusk when we reached the landmark chotra of Gandevi town, shaded by a pipal tree. A group of elderly men had convened on the concrete chotra, as they did every evening, smoking beedis. On the other side of the platform, a bunch of younger lads hung around, some nibbling on twigs, others backslapping and generally looking bored.
The first thing that Baa did was to head straight to the cobbler Ganapat’s shop. The walls of the little shop were lined with freshly crafted shoes and chappals. She let me choose the chappals and stood aside talking to a woman from Gadat village – she seemed to know everyone here. A proud seventh standard-pass, Baa often narrated with a flourish the events surrounding her time at the primary school that was right in front of the shop.
“Baba has excellent choice, Lalee ben,” Ganapat unleashed his stock phrase to the delight of the buyer.
I decided to put on the new chappals right away and we walked towards the vegetable market at the far end of the town. Sensing that I would be uncomfortable walking with my new chappals through the dirty street leading to the market, Baa paused and made me wait by the side of a one-storey building, slightly off the main approach street.
“Look, I am going into the market to buy some vegetables. You stay right here, dikraa. Don’t move, ok? If you get tired you can sit on this big stone. I will be back soon.” In a small town, where everyone knew everyone it was quite safe to leave a child alone in a public place like the market.
My spirits were up, wearing the new squeaky chappals, with its shiny polish and the smell of sweet leather. I saw Baa, cloth bag in her hand, slowly walking towards the chaotic market.
Suddenly, I heard one of my favorite mujraa songs from the room above.
“Hum haal dil sunaaenge…” the song went, the voice fresh and clear.
Some woman was singing the song with matching dance steps and someone was accompanying her on the tabla – wow, this was fabulous! I had mastered this song on my Bulbul Tarang as well. As the song progressed my fingers started tapping away on the keys of an imaginary Bulbul Tarang.
I looked up. There was a low balcony with the door open, but I couldn’t’ see anyone in the balcony.
The song ended to the accompaniment of appreciative “wah-wahs” from what sounded like a small audience. I wondered who might be in this group that sat in the apartment, listening to one of the best mujra songs ever. Baa was not back yet. I wondered if I could climb up the stairs to see what was going on there.
Then I saw a young, dark-skinned boy of my age, rapidly coming down the stairs.
“Ay, ay, ay, who is singing upstairs?” I cornered the boy.
“My mother”, the boy said, and quickly ran off to the local store not waiting for more questions.
Good music had a way of awakening my spirits. “Arrey, I must go with him and meet his mother.”
The boy soon returned with a packet of paans in his hand.
I lost no time in cornering him again.
“No no, you can’t come upstairs,” the boy declared firmly.
He slammed the door behind him and strode upstairs before I could ask more questions. The gall of the fellow!
Baa was taking an unusually long time to return.
Another song wafted down, from the movie Kala Paani. “Nazar laagi raja tore bangley par…”
The voice was heavenly. I shot one last glance at the balcony just as I sighted Baa coming towards me with a cloth bag bulging with vegetables.
“Baa, I heard someone there, dancing to a song that I also play on my Bulbul Tarang!” I pointed towards the balcony.
Baa then realized how inappropriate it was to leave the boy in front of that ‘dirty’ building.
She pulled at my hand and quickened her pace, moving towards the bullock cart. “Come on come on, we are getting late now.”
I kept humming the songs all the way home.
Baa’s reaction was enough to signal me to keep quiet on what transpired underneath the balcony. I was a smart boy after all.
It was dark by the time we reached home. Allu Kaka’s house was a lot quieter and only a few close relatives were seen milling about. A policeman was seated at the entrance, talking to sundry people.
With all the unusual events happening on a single day, I found it hard to fall asleep. When I did, I had a dream in which I was playing the same mujra songs on my instrument at Ajrai village with Chhagan Mama accompanying me on the tabla and the audience from across the street applauding.
Ashok, Manu’s older brother, woke me up late the next morning. “Come on Baba, there is ripe fruit on the guava tree close to the chowk; let’s go climb up and pick them.”
The lethargy I felt disappeared as soon as I sighted my new chappals neatly placed underneath my cot. So the leather-eating marauding rats had spared my chappals. Ignoring Baa’s pleas, I hurriedly went with Ashok to survey the guava tree.
“They still look unripe to me, Ashok.”
“Well, it is better to eat them now and not wait till they turn fully ripe. The monkeys jumping around the roof will finish the ripe fruits before we do,” advised Ashok.
“But I can’t climb the tree.”
“Ha ha, you little city-bred sissy boy. I will do the climbing and throw the fruits from up above. You can catch them standing under the tree, can’t you?”
“Ok, but be careful, don’t hit my head when you throw them,” cautioned the sissy boy.
Ashok and I had an unusually fruity breakfast before other boys woke up.
Allu Kaka’s house was still abuzz with more people visiting the family to condole his death. The teary eyed Pali Baa, having regained her composure, was seen greeting all visitors with folded hands. Some youngsters bowed their head in front of Pali Baa. Satish had to get his head shaved like the other male members of the family. He still looked dazed.
Nana Kaka had occupied his usual seat on the lone rickety chair on the front veranda and was ruing the fact that today no one would remember to bring the local newspaper from Allu Kaka’s house that day. Kakuji and Allu Kaka had an understanding about sharing the daily newspaper. So all Nana Kaka could do was sit there, his bare torso glistening in the morning sun, swatting away flies with a piece of cloth.
Manu came running from the house to announce, “Ichchha Fui’s handy man is at the back door.”
The news wasn’t good. Ichchha Fui had suddenly gotten ill and had great difficulty in breathing. Kakuji and the other older members of Lalbhai clan had been summoned urgently.
Three bullock carts were readied to rush to Ajrai. There was no way I could have been dissuaded from joining the procession.
We reached Ajrai in no time. A small crowd had gathered outside Ichchha Fui’s house, talking in hushed voices.
Baa forbade me from entering the house. “Little children can’t come in. Play outside for now.”
I was anxious to know what was going on in the house.
Then I saw the boy again, the one I had seen in Gandevi the previous evening. He was all by himself, singing softly as he played in a mound of sand near a neighbor’s house that was being repaired.
What was this boy doing here? Who brought him here? Where are his parents? There was no end to these thoughts in my mind.
I walked up to the boy and re-introduced myself.
“Remember I met you at your place last evening in Gandevi? What’s your name?”
“Vijay. What are you doing you here? Is that old lady your relative?”
“She is my fui”.
“How can she be your fui? You are so young and she…?”
‘I don’t know but I call her Fui Baa, just like my Baa does.”
Through the open window we could see some figures hunched over Ichchha Fui’s bed.
Someone from the door gestured towards the boy, terminating our conversation. “Ay chhokra, they are calling you inside!”
Vijay went inside. Unable to contain my curiosity I sneaked in with him.
Chhagan Mama was holding a frail Ichchha Fui as she tried to sit up and stared at him, unblinking. A woman stood next to Chhagan Mama, hands clasped, head bowed.
“Baa, Reva is a singer and dancer, not a prostitute. I have married her, by God. She has been and will be a good wife to me. And here,” he said, drawing Vijay close to him, “look, this is your grandson, Vijay.”
“But…” Ichchha Fui was struggling to speak.
“Baa, don’t worry about the villagers and our relatives. I will deal with them. Please bless them Baa, for God’s sake.” Chhagan Mama helped her lift her hand to bless the boy as tears rolled down Ichchha Fui’s face.
Reva reverently knelt before Ichchha Fui Baa and Vijay followed suit. Ichchha Fui, her eyes fixed on the portrait of her husband Bhagu Fua on the wall, blessed both Reva and Vijay and collapsed. Some relatives began crying, my Baa sobbed and held Chhagan Mama’s hand.
I took Vijay’s hand and led him out to play on the mound of sand once again.