When it boils down to honour

When it boils down to honour

A man who had always been responsible had been deprived of the opportunity to execute his parental duties at a crucial stage. Cyclopean destiny beckoned him to leave the world of illusion, and he left behind an insecure wife and a marriageable daughter to fend for themselves. This sudden, ill-timed departure of Pandit Ravi Tripathi made his widow Maya, see the world through her own eyes for the first time. In less than two months she had learnt more about the ways of this world than what she had understood in her 20 years of marriage. Apart from protecting her daughter Varsha from lustful eyes, she had to be cautious for herself. She retained a fair amount of physical charm that made her look like Varsha’s elder sister.

One evening, when the sun was about to hide itself behind the hills, Brij Lal came, smoking. Maya was arranging empty jars in the verandah. He did not stub out the cigarette as he used to do when he saw Pandit Tripathi. That respect was dead now. Moving forward a wicker chair in his direction she asked him to wait while she completed some important chores. When Maya was checking on various pickles and spices in the kitchen, he peeped in to see her, to see how her life had moved. Offended with his intrusion, she exploded with visible disgust. “I’d asked you to wait there.” Her words had no impact on him. He stood blocking the door, penetrating his little finger inside his right ear and giving it a vigorous shake that brought expressions of ecstasy on his pockmarked face.

Varsha came in with a packet of salt and was surprised to find a guest standing in an unusual place, in a weird posture. She was deferential to Brij Lal. She bent low to touch his feet and he grabbed her arms. Then, he placed his hand full of blessings on her head and stroked it gently. Gauging his intentions, Maya instructed Varsha to slice vegetables. Perhaps the sight of a sharp knife would scare the monster enough to keep his hands and tongue in leash.

Brij Lal followed Maya to the verandah, finally revealing the purpose of his visit. “Mayaji, I know you have not recovered from the tragedy yet. The hour is not right to discuss such matters but the need is urgent. Actually, Tripathiji had taken Rs 5000 from me. He had promised to return it soon. Then he passed away.” The way he spoke made it clear that he had rehearsed these lines. Maya threw a sharp glance at him. “I don’t believe you. He never told me. He never borrowed money. Certainly not from you. What proof do you have?” Maya harrumphed, her eyes beginning to show a combination of anger, frustration and hatred.

Brij Lal was thorough with his homework. “I have no proof. Only God knows. If you do not pay I cannot recover it. But it was a deal based on commitment, a gentleman’s promise. Faith and trust are much bigger than Rs 5000. I do not think you would like me to remember your husband as a cheat, who left behind a family that refuses to pay. I made the mistake of convincing Tripathi not to share it with you. I thought he would repay it within a month. But he died. My bad luck.” He tapped his forehead as if it were a door.

Maya was still not convinced that her husband had borrowed money from Brij Lal. There was no way of finding the truth. Brij Lal could easily arrange false witnesses of the deal and malign the family name. Her suspicions went deep but there was no way of establishing him as the culprit, even though he did not enjoy a good name in Rudrapur.

“When do you want it?” Maya asked, tucking a curl behind her ear. Brij Lal was joyous to have convinced her of the debt. He was generous in allotting her more time, a month’s time to repay, though earlier he had spoken of an urgent need. As Maya poured over it, he became more co-operative. “Pay in installments. I do not want to burden you. I’ll come after a month.” Having achieved his objective, he stood up to leave, forgetting to take a sip from the glass of water Varsha had placed on the window-sill.

Maya was lost in thought. She did not notice when he left. The ashes from his cigarette were scattered all around, the empty packet lay on the seat. Varsha had heard snatches of their conversation and seemed to regret seeking his blessings. “Such men should be kicked and thrown out,” she said, and consoled her mother who was already burdened with worries of running the household without a steady source of income. Maya wept and said, “This man is a cheat. He is lying. Your father never borrowed. He was not like that. He had no bad habits.” Maya went on clarifying and explaining the good nature of her husband, as if the girl was not yet old enough to understand her late father.

Varsha tried to convince her mother not to walk into his trap. Maya said, “I know it all. There is no way out either. If we do not repay him, he cannot do us any wrong. But he can certainly sully our name, your father’s name. That honour is worth more than a few thousand rupees. Today your father is fondly remembered, adored. The other day Shastriji wanted your father’s picture in the town hall. This honour is precious, difficult to earn. Will that rogue not spread ill-will about your father if his interest is not served?”
Varsha understood her mother. It was all about honour. It was clear that Maya had decided what to do. There were some queries floating in Varsha’s mind but she chose to ignore them all except one. “But Ma, paying the amount would be difficult for us at this stage.”

Gently patting her back to raise her spirits, Maya said, “You need not worry about that. Leave it to me. I am still alive. Come on, finish cooking, we are already late.” Though Maya had silenced her with verbose phrases, she was wondering what she would have to do to clear the debt. She recalled names of relatives who could perhaps help. Then, she suddenly remembered her husband’s chess-playing friend Kishore Chand who lived in a colony nearby. Asking Varsha to boil rice, she hurried out to catch him. She had seen her husband lend him Rs 2600 to start a poultry business a year ago. She decided to seek the principal amount and thanked God for reminding her of Kishore Chand at the right time. She saw light at the end of the tunnel.

Changing shades
Kishore Chand was busy playing with chickens. Seeing her, he intuitively understood that a major compulsion had brought her to his door. She was not the kind who paid courtesy visits, not even once when his wife Dulari was there. The noisy chickens were uncontrollable. Maya had to shout to convey her purpose. When he heard the demand, without batting an eyelid, he said, “I had repaid that amount in six months. No dues.”

“Liar!” she burst forth. “When did you pay? To whom? Show me the proof.”
Enlarging his bloodshot eyes, he said with thrust, “Women should not talk so loudly to men. Don’t call me a liar again. If you need money, say that properly, I’ll be more than willing to help a damsel in distress. But this is not the way to create space in a man’s heart.” He grabbed a chicken, petted it and then twisted its supple neck, like a washer-man wrings a towel dry, sending out a strong message of his cruelty.
Blood spilled out, drops fell on her sari. His roving eyes were stationed on her enormous breasts. It was scary to see Kishore in this evil form. Maya felt ravished by his gluttonous eyes and wished she could gouge them out before they fell on another woman. The air had turned foul with alcohol. His deep breaths made her realise the dangers of talking to a man under intoxication. Maya understood that the rumours about his illicit relationships after Dulari eloped were true. 

As he began to move towards her with a fiery look, Maya retraced her steps. She ran away as fast as she could, finding her way out of the brood of chickens. She could hear his raucous laughter mingled with sadistic pleasure at having scared away a woman who had approached him for money.

Claiming the dues was difficult. Maya had to forget this source. Or else Kishore Chand might try to exploit her in other ways. Life without a man multiplies problems. It was difficult to imagine this man being so friendly and polite just a year ago. And now, he had changed himself completely. Do human beings change so drastically? Such questions assailed Maya while she returned home. The rustle of leaves sent a shiver down her spine, as if Kishore Chand was trailing her steps.

Varsha was kneading dough when Maya arrived breathless. She would perhaps ask her mother where she had been to. Before Maya could fabricate a story, Varsha said, “You went to Kishore uncle. And he refused to pay.” Maya nodded and wept. “He says he had repaid your father. I thought that money could be used for repaying Brij Lal. That hope is dead.” She avoided descriptions of what transpired at Kishore Chand’s house, though that was an equally important reason why she wept so inconsolably.
Varsha tried to sound practical. “Ma, reconsider the decision. How do we repay so fast? I mean, even if we start doubling our pickle sales or sell other items, do you think we can arrange for the money?”

“We have to. There is no alternative. I’ll sell my jewellery if needed,” Maya declared resolutely, giving her daughter an idea of the extent she was ready to go to repay the debt for the sake of family honour. Seeing her mother so determined there was no way out but to start doing more work, to save a lot and repay as quickly as possible.
Maya set up a tailoring unit as she owned a sewing machine and began to stitch blouses and salwar suits. Varsha’s dresses were also stitched by her. She was lucky to get many orders. They created new styles that became popular with the youth. Soon they were flooded with more than they could tackle. Maya thanked god for making her realise that this skill could also be utilised to generate income. Tragedy prepares you and difficulties teach you strategies of survival. These are not bookish words, they have relevance in life. Varsha was seeing the truth of these statements come alive, something she had not expected to happen so soon.  
Maya repaid the entire amount after two months. Once, Brij Lal had come to seek partial payment but Maya had committed to repay the lump-sum after another month. He came on the fixed date. Varsha made Brij Lal stand outside their house, forcing him to sign on a receipt of repayment.

“Smart girl,” he said, looking with spite at Varsha. “Are you planning to get her married?” he asked Maya who was counting the notes. Maya did not like his tone. “That should not be your headache. I am there to bother about that. Count your money and leave. This ends our relationship,” she said, and thrust forward the bundle of notes.

“Relationships are deeper and not subject to money alone...” Before he could continue with his rant, she shut the door in his face. She knew fully well what kind of people inhabit this world. Brij Lal was a living example of people wearing masks. Maya wondered if her husband was weak at understanding human beings. Why did he forge ties with the wrong kind of people? Perhaps a noble person sees others as noble as well.

Maya and Varsha hugged each other to celebrate their first victory. They were happy that the worst was behind them. Maya prepared suji halwa, Varsha’s favourite item. They looked forward to better times. But the fear of losing her daughter cut into her happiness. One day Varsha would marry and go away. Then Maya would have to live in this house, alone, with only memories.

The arrival of the letter
A fortnight later, the postman arrived with a letter. The letter came from Saharanpur. It heralded the arrival of a guest who had used the introductory paragraph to offer condolences to the bereaved family and then proceeded to dwell on a marital proposal for Varsha. Maya was bewildered that the letter-writer talked of an agreement with Tripathi when he met him at a literary conference in Dehradun. She had no knowledge of this. She did not mention it to Varsha who wouldn’t like to hear such news related to her future. The hour was not opportune to broach the subject.
Moreover, it was not prudent on her part to raise too many hopes based on a letter. Maya just mentioned that it was from her one of her father’s numerous friends who would pay them a short visit the following week. Varsha sensed from her mother’s face that the letter had brought great worry.

By then, Maya had come to terms with the fact that soon Varsha would have to marry and leave. There should be consolation that Varsha’s future is bright and that she gets what Maya could not get in her life. She had to excavate substantial details before finalising any bridegroom. It could not be done based on a letter and unsubstantiated claims by a stranger who spoke of a decade-old friendship sustained on mutual admiration.

She wondered why her husband had not shared details of this alliance with her, especially since he discussed minor details about what went on at his workplace. Or maybe he wanted to divulge it at an appropriate stage but death came first. There were too many questions and possibilities floating through her head. These answers would be sought once the guest came, once she saw the photographs and collected information regarding what the boy did for a living. If everything went well, she would first seek Varsha’s views and then settle the match. Till then, there was no point disturbing the peace in the household. She had no idea how Varsha would react to the subject.

Maya started cleaning the house, putting things in order, making it look attractive. Curtains and bedsheets were changed. For the past four months, the house had worn a shabby look. Now there was an excuse to do it up. Varsha was curious to know why they were decking up the house. Maya philosophised, “My dear, life has to go on, and we should start living afresh now. Let us look at the brighter side.” Unconvinced by these words, Varsha wanted to ferret out more from her mother. Unfortunately, she failed.

One evening, Maya went to deliver suits to some families as the delivery date had already passed. Varsha was rearranging items in her mother’s cupboard. Behind the puja shelf, she discovered the hidden letter. She picked it up and read it carefully. She understood every bit of why these elaborate preparations were in progress. In fact, she had gathered more than what was written in the letter. She was hurt that her mother had not confided in her. She wept bitterly. Her tears distorted the shape of alphabets. She felt like crumbling the letter and throwing it away. But she placed the letter in the same place before retiring to her room.

Maya returned to a dark house. The lamp in the verandah was not lit. As soon as Maya came in, she began to give descriptions of what their customers wanted. She gave Varsha the money she had collected from the three houses she had been to, advising her to maintain an account of their monthly income. She reminded her that they should prepare some sweet dishes and keep snacks ready. Varsha placed the money in the cash-box and said after counting it, “It is Rs 1,155.”

“I’m tired, I don’t feel like eating much. I’ll just have curd and go to sleep,” Maya said, suppressing a yawn. Varsha finished serving her mother. She made a lot of noise with the utensils in the kitchen. Maya did not suspect that Varsha had not eaten anything.
The next morning, Maya woke up and found the kitchen and verandah already cleaned. Having a hardworking daughter is a matter of luck. The earthen pots were missing from the kitchen. She figured that Varsha had gone to the well to fetch water. As she entered her room to have a bath, she noticed a basket full of freshly-plucked flowers in the puja corner. Along with that was a letter. Tears rolled down her eyes as she read it. She called Varsha immature for not being able to understand her.
In the letter, Varsha spoke of never returning home and suggested that it would be futile to look for her. Seeing her mother so hell-bent on preserving honour and keeping promises, perhaps Varsha feared that the same would prevail in her case.
Maya came rushing out, nursing hope of getting her daughter back. She stopped every passer-bye on her way to the well and asked them whether they had seen her daughter. Her hopes diminished.

When she reached the well, she saw some pots lying upturned. She recognised them. She peeped into the well and called out Varsha’s name. Each time louder, each time sadder.

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