Tuesday, July 26, 2011

She Died Thrice by Om Juneja

Yes, my grand mother, whom we knew as Daddi died three times. When we wanted something like butter from her, we respectfully added ji to her name and called her Daadiji. She then knew that we were looking for something that she alone could give. Mother and other women in the house had no control on such things as butter or lassi (butter milk). She reserved them for her sons and not for us, the grandsons. Grand daughters had no say in the matter, as they were not to stay in this house after they got married. After all they were the birds of passage that were there to fly away one day, sooner or later. Sons and grandsons were there to stay and so they were under the charge of Daadi who rationed the supplies, while all the daughters were under the charge of Mother and other women who had very little to offer to their girls.

In all there were four sons, three daughters-in-law, four grand sons and three grand daughters living under one roof, and an attic. Every body had to line up for using the lavatory that was just one and if you wanted to take bath, the best bet for you was to go outside this hundred by hundred feet house and sit under the running tap, which flowed only once during the day for two hours in the morning.

So to go to the school, first thing that you had to do was to reserve your turn in front of the lavatory and if you missed it, you had it. What would you do if high-pressure churned your stomach or your intestines creaked or you wanted to pee urgently? If lucky, you yelled or shrieked and boxed the lavatory door asking your brother to come out quickly. As he would generally not oblige, so you made an attempt to break open the door. But no such yelling would do if your uncle or dad were inside taking his sweet time to relieve him of all that extra food that he got because he was the breadwinner and you the bread eater, as Daadi called us.

On those unlucky days of the breadwinners occupying the inside seat, you jumped this queue and went to the public tap. If lucky there, you sat under the tap after removing your vest but retaining your underwear.  The running water tap provided you much relief and you prolonged your squat till someone threw you out because she wanted to fill her pitcher or pail. The bullying neighbour anyways came yelling from a distance and you had to pack up before he came to the tap.

There were no taps in our houses. The water supply line was given to us only when all the elders approached the President of the municipality. He did not think it necessary to provide water connections in these houses evacuated by the Muslims who had gone to Pakistan. The Hindu refugees who had come from Pakistan now occupied the entire housing complex and they needed water connections because they would not begin their day without taking bath and offering prayers to their gods.  Some of these gods, like Shiva, needed a regular bath early in the morning every day. So my father and others pleaded with the President to provide water supply to these houses in Khoja Haveli – the colony of the Khojas, the ethnic Muslims who embraced Islam during the reign of Aurangzeb in Agra and had now gone to live in Pakistan, the land of the pure.

It was one of the Khoja boys who met my father on the platform of Delhi railway station where Father worked as a coolie. The family thought that he had died in the train that was to bring him to Delhi in India from Lahore in Pakistan. This was during those heady days of Partition when he decided to come to Delhi. Daadi never liked this idea of leaving the village. She, in fact, blamed Father for misleading every one in the village to believe that they will have to leave this village where they had lived since ages. No one knew since when had our people come to live there as it was forever and ever.

Father knew what was going to happen because he read English newspapers and heard the radio news regularly. After all, he was the only graduate from National College, Lahore in the entire village. Before leaving, he told every one in the village that he would receive them in a nice house in Delhi that he would buy from the money that he carried with him. This however did not happen. His train was burned and most of the passengers died and those who escaped fell in the mighty river Ravi inundated with floodwaters from the Himalayas. This river divided Pakistan and India.

This Khoja boy who met Father at Delhi railway station was on his way to Pakistan. His father worked on our village farms. He left the village to the famed city of Taj Mahal in search of a better life and now owned a small shop in Agra. Recognising Father, Bashir took him to Agra and taught him his business of selling chrome leather. With the money that he had earned working as a coolie and the savings that he had retained from the money that he brought with him from the village, Father bought the business from Bashir, who left for Pakistan with some cash and the comforting thought that when things get better he would come back to run the business himself.

Daadi with all her children and others managed to reach Gurgaon, a town near Delhi. It was here that we came to know that Father was alive and was running a small shop. Uncle Ram finally found him in Agra and thus the family moved there. Father, however, could not tell Daadi about his No sooner did Father leave the village; it was attacked by the zealous marauding mobs.  Daadi leading every one left the burning village on foot just in time to reach a refugee camp in the city. Dead sure of her return to the village, she collected all the cash, gold and silver from the house as also from her daughters-in-law and put it in a copper vessel that she buried under ground so as to recover it on her inevitable return. So she believed firmly. Not to come back to this village was simply beyond her imagination. Being a chaste Hindu, how could he sell the leather made out of the body of the sacred cow, holy mother? This was a secret that was kept only among all the brothers away from women and children. Whenever we wanted to know what the kind of business it was, we were told that a business was a business. Children however were not allowed to share business secrets.

One day my brother and I followed our father to his shop secretly. It was an exciting trip into the business world of shoes. Cobblers carried their shoes wrapped in while cloth in huge bamboo baskets on their heads. These baskets were covered with white cloth. On reaching a trader, they would take down their baskets and show their wares to the shopkeeper. The shoes shone brightly. After selling their shoes, Gopal, the cobbler, went to Father’s shop to buy chrome leather. We hid ourselves behind the bicycles and cycle rickshaws parked nearby. Taking a strategic position, we watched Father opening the bundle of chrome leather. He showed these huge pieces of leather to Gopal, who bought it to carry it home to make shoes. In the meanwhile, we saw Father turning in our direction. We ran for fear of life and came home to tell Daadi what we had seen and smelt. The market lining up the shops had a strange smell of raw leather, which we had never smelt before because we did not have the shoes made of such expensive material, which was made in the tanneries run by the Chinese in Calcutta.

That night, Daadi did not eat her dinner and went on a long fast to purify herself from the sin of being the mother of sons who sold leather made out of the body of the holy cow. She was sure that now she could not be saved from damnation as Kam Dhenu, the mythical cow would simply not allow her to catch her tail to carry her across the ocean of Sansar, this world to the Swarglok, the heaven.

It was for this reason that she never wanted to go back to her village anymore because Muslims, the beefeaters, had now polluted her house in the village. These beefeaters could not enter her house because they worked for her on the farms owned by her family. Being the owner of those farmlands, she had made her own rules and one of them was that no beefeater was to be allowed inside her house, which had a herd of cows whom she worshiped early in the morning carrying a thali of flowers and honey and curd and the inevitable vermilion to anoint the forehead of every cow that we owned. On every Ekadashi, the eleventh day in the lunar month, all these cows were bathed, decorated with garlands made of marigold flowers, anointed with vermilion   and were fed personally by her and her chosen daughters-in-law before they were sent out to graze on the family farms. Daadi told us that she had leant this from her mother who ordained that all the Suhagan women, happily married must perform this ceremony on every Ekadahsi day when the moon comes down from heaven with Lord Gopal, the child Krishna, to bless the cows and the owners in all those houses where they are worshipped.  The moon, she told tell us, would never descend near the house of a beefeater, as it can smell beef, cooked or uncooked. When we asked whether she had ever herself smelt beef, she yelled at us for asking such a blasphemous question. How can any one go near a place storing beef?

Now that Father had committed a blasphemy and she was eating the food bought from the money that he earned, Daadi decided to go to some pundit, the religious scholar to find a way to expiate this sin. A good trustworthy pundit was difficult to find in this new place where you knew very few people who could be relied upon and should not cost much.

So the whole family got in this business of finding someone who could authentically find a solution to this problem. After all how long would you allow Daadi to go without food? She had not eaten a morsel ever since she came to know this horrible act tarnishing the family name and denying her a place in Swarglok, the heaven. After all, who would not like to live in Swarglok, the kingdom of Lord Vishnu reclining on Sheshnag, the mythical serpent in the company of Lakshmi, his consort on the white ocean? To live eternally young   in the company of gods was pure bliss, which no one wanted to miss. The dying Daadi, therefore, became a matter of great concern for this community of refugees who debated the moral dilemma of reserving a place in Swarglok, the heavenly other world or surviving the trials and tribulations of Partition on this earth. The ever-increasing line of visitors debating this question of our family’s place in heaven or hell created a crisis that needed a quick resolution.

A meeting of all the elders who had come to live in this new place from our village was arranged. No one could suggest a viable solution as no one had ever faced a dilemma of such dimension and magnitude. There were my distance uncles, cousins and others from the same village that had entered this business of selling shoes, which they had bought from the running Muslims. But no one had bought a business of selling chrome leather, the leather made out of the body of the holy cow. While the community went on debating the ways to tackle this, the condition of Daadi went on deteriorating, more so because no pundit could be found to solve the riddle.

One day when the doctor came to examine her, he pronounced that she was going to die in a couple of hours. In order to save the dead from sure damnation, the cemented floor of the small room was washed with water. A bamboo mat was placed on it. Burning incense sticks were fixed on all the four sides of the mat and an earthen lamp full of oil was kept lit to guide the departing soul on its way to heaven. A neighbour brought a garland of marigold flowers. Mother kept a white sheet of cloth ready to cover the face of Daadi when she died. Another neighbour brought a small bottle containing the water of the holy Ganga so that it could be poured on her lips just before she dies.

When all the women got together to recite the verses from the Gita, Daadi, who was lying unconscious on her Charpoi, the wooden bed, was brought down by Father and his brothers who laid her on the mat. Soon we managed to hide under her bed to watch what was happening in the house. No body talked to any one, while the chanting continued. Every one was scared of death. We were mortified because of the guilt of telling about Father’s business. Daadi had told us that when Yam Raj, the lord of death came, she would plead with him to expiate her for the sins of her sons and show the way to go to Kam Dhenu, the holy cow. She was very sure that the Holy Mother Cow would hear her supplication and take her to Swarglok. With our bated breath we waited for Yam Raj to come and talk to Daadi. I even saw him coming out of the ceiling and pointed it to my brother, who could not see him. So after some discussion with my brother, I asked Yam Raj to go away.

We waited for one long day after the doctor had told us about Daadi’s impending death. She lay on the mat completely unconscious. The swelling line of visitors went on increasing. No food was cooked in the house, though a neighbour fed us, the children.

At sunset, Daadi stirred a little mumbling something. Mother poured a few drops of water in her mouth. Daadi called Father and asked, had all the cows retuned home from grazing? Father nodded. Her face glowed and then again she relapsed into her old state. There was commotion in the room.  Women forgot the chanting. The visitors who had lined up were the first of announce her return from heaven. Daadi however gave no such news.

In the meanwhile some one announced the arrival of a pundit. Daadi stirred again when told about this. Pundit touched her hand. Every one in room had a sigh of relief. Father and his brothers stretched their arms to lift Daadi to the bed. We ran out of our hiding below the bed. Luckily no one noticed our flight. We heard Pundit talk to Father, who told him that he would like to expiate the sin of selling chrome leather. Father and Pundit then walked up to Daadi’s bed. Father told Daadi that Punditji had found a solution from the Shastras, the scriptures that say that this can be expiated by donating a black cow with white patches on a full moon night. Daadi nodded in agreement. Mother brought some lemon juice. Daadi broke her fast and the ordeal ended. There was jubilation all around. Every one waited for Pooran Mashi, the day of the full moon-night.

Mother got busy preparing for the big puja on the day of Pooran Mashi. All the cemented floors of the house were washed with water. The doors and windows were wiped and cleaned, as was the whole house.  Children were given a clean set of clothes.

There was joy everywhere. We waited for the black cow with white spots to arrive. Father came with Punditji at the appointed time to perform the Puja of the holy cow. Daadi, though weak, looked happy. She asked Father whether he had arranged the donation of the cow. He said he had. She probed further and asked who had paid for this? Father told her that he had done it from his own income. How could that be? How could such a pious act of donating a cow to a Brahmin be performed from the income of a son who earned his living selling cow leather? This was simply unacceptable to Daadi. She could not be convinced despite all the scholarly quotations from Shastras, the scriptures by Punditji, who said that the source of income was not mentioned any where in any book. Daadi remained totally unconvinced. She did not agree to perform the donation ceremony. Pundit had to go back as there was no way to convince Daadi.   

Gloom returned to our house again when Daadi went on indefinite fast. This time she did not talk about heaven and hell. She became very weak, almost fragile, even after a few days of fasting. Lying in the bed, she would mumble something about her village days. She would inquire about her cows calling their names. She would order Uncle Ram to go and put a pail of water so that Kali, the black cow, could quench her thirst. Sometimes at dusk, she would stand up at the door for the cows to come back and order Mother to prepare the thali for Puja. After finding no cows, she would fall in the bed, unconscious. Mother told her that there were no cows in this place in India. We had left them in the village in Pakistan. This continued for a few days. The doctor treating her gave up all hope and advised Father to be ready for her death any time.

Once again she was going to die. As no one wanted her to die in the bed, so the bamboo mat, incense sticks, Ganga water, white cloth and an earthen lamp full of oil were kept handy. On the fourth night, she was laid on the bamboo mat for the second time as she had lost her breath temporarily. Mother and all other women started chanting verses from the Gita.  Every body was sure that the inevitable was going to happen. The doctor had already declared this fact.

My maternal uncle, who had heard this terrible news in Delhi, came to meet Mother. As soon as he went near Daadi, she stirred and mumbled, though her face could not be seen in the poor light of the earthen lamp. She again stirred and attempted to waive. Seeing this Father nodded and she was put back in the bed. Nothing much happened during the gloomy dark night.

When Boota Ram, maternal uncle saw Daadi in the morning, he found that she wanted to talk to him. Apologizing for his late arrival to meet her, he explained how busy he was marking the scripts of his students. As this was the term ending time, so his school did not grant him leave to come here.  Daadi’s face glowed. She attempted to smile but could not. She called Mother, who asked Boota Ram if he had the money required for donating a cow. He immediately took out the money from his pocket and gave it to Mother. Daadi gathering all her courage snatched it from Mother. Now she had the necessary amount, pure and chaste from the earnings of a teacher in her fist. She ordered Father to call Pundit. This super human effort of snatching the money from Mother sapped the little energy that Daadi had. She fell down in the bed and died for the third time. 

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