And A Thousand Evils Followed Us
t was a hot and searing afternoon in Dubai. Upendra Pandit lay on his back; back from his morning session. The room was cool and comfortable; the only audible sound was the burr of the A.C. He was not a happy man, never slept an uninterrupted sleep. He craved for a wink. The sealed eyelids conjured up coloured circles-black, red and multi hued shapes. His phone placed nearby rang. With mechanical dexterity, he pressed the call receive. “Hello” the male voice was known to him, so he did not respond. There was an uneasy pause. The voice came alive again “She is dead…..It was an accident.” Upendra did not let the voice continue, pressed the button. The cell phone fell from his shaking hands. Rajni, his wife of twenty five years, his play mate, his childhood sweet heart and the mother of his twenty two year old son, was dead. He slowly crossed the room with a dragging gait. Strangely, the news did not come as a jolt. He had anticipated-He knew what was coming…..but death! She was not sick, literally, apart from her recent surgery and what he termed, a loathsome connection. He sat on a chair, His burning eyes clouded by the blinding tears, at the same time, he was not crying. He closed his eyes again. He was ashamed! To experience a peace he had not known from last three years. It was like he had been suffering from a deadly boil, which had burst open to let out the contaminated puss and he was relieved of pain. “No! How could his dear dear Rajni be a metaphor for anything mucky? He let his palms stretch-The way he used supporting Rajni’s little palms under a kaw Potul- The Hay bowl or contraption they together held, It contained the yellow rice with lentil. Together,in their high pitched juvenile voices they invited the crows. “Kaw Bhat kawo, khetsre kawo.” Come crow,the crow of Bhattas and partake of our khichdi. They had been childhood pals, Their parents being bosom friends;both belonged to the village Verinaag- the spring town supposed to be the source of Jehlum. Mohan Pandit and Krishna Bhat were teachers in government middle school. Mohan’s son was born three years before Krishna’s daughter, the former as a toddler would touch Krishna’s pregnant wife’s bulged belly. She would caress his tresses and explain “This is your brother, sent by vitasta, to play with you.” “No!”The child would retort. “No, It is a girl, She will play with me and then I will marry her”. The children played their games of hide and seek in the precincts of Verinaag garden in the foot hills of Pir Panchaal mountain range. Their mothers would feed them the yellow colored mutton kalia and tell each other “we have fed them the Daaya Baat; (The ceremonial meal the couple eats on their wedding day together from a common plate). They attended the same school as tiny tots and together sang their Do Ecai Do the multiple tables in unison.
Time flies, the children attained youth, Rajni was now Rajni Bhat and Upen was Upendra Pandit. Meanwhile, the political scene of Kashmir saw accords and discords, sometimes lull of peaceful sunny days and at others the ugly upheavals. In mid sixties after the 65 war, Pandit and Bhat decided to shift base to Srinagar. Both teachers were now senior Masters, and could afford small houses in the old down town of Srinagar. Now Rajni and Upendra had to attend different schools but invariably spent the evenings together, narrating observed events, mimicking teachers and giggled. Both were academically good, though Upendra showed promises of a brilliant student, and completed their college. Rajni got a job in Accountant Generals office and Upendra took a degree in Civil Engineering from R.E.C. Srinagar. He had grabbed at first available position as opportunities for a Bhatta lad were hard to come by. The young couple played like friends, quarreled like siblings and courted like lovers. Once Upendra questioned Rajni with a genuine concern” who will marry us Rajni?” And Rajni’s laconic reply was “we will marry each other of course-why anybody else?” Their marriage was almost an anticipated affair. This union was as natural and naïve as that of Adam and Eve, as Shiva and Shakti, to complement each other.
Then came their son on Basant Panchami of 1980. Little Basant was brought up most organically by two doting pairs of grandparents. The lullabies in sweetest baritones lulled him to sleep. “Tsantha Ronya Manzlis, karay Goor Goor” “I will pat you to sleep in your cradle with trinkets.” Little Basant was growing, little knowing that his cradle with trinkets was an ephemeral vision.
Kashmir’s political pot was boiling. Kashmir valley was a happening place politically. Fierce rumours were circulating. The majority community eyed the Pandits with a strange kind of animosity never known before.
And then things took a disastrous turn. Rajni’s father died; he was actually beaten by his farm hands when he had gone to collect his share of gains. This was early eighty six. The daily hands emboldened by local hooligans, hurled abuses at Krishan Bhat and beat him up with sticks. One of his loyal tenants transported him to Srinagar where he died after a week. Rajni’s mother was devastated, more so, with the manner he was killed. And the catastrophic development led to a practical problem. Rajni could not leave her mother alone, in her desolation. After the mandatory ceremonies of twelve days, Rajni had a counsel with her husband away from the hordes of relatives gathered to condole the family. Rajni addressed him “Upen, Ma is not in a position to carry on alone, bereaved as she is. what should I do? “We will take her home……..all other obsequies will be done from our house-your house-her daughter’s abode.” Rajni was proud of her husband, his sense of judgment and humane outlook. A widowed mother sharing her daughter’s lodgings, that too in very presence of her father and mother-in-law. It was not among the prescriptive of social norms, but Upendra always respected her responsibilities as a daughter.
The two ladies had been friends for half a century; still Krishan Bhat’s wife’s perpetual companionship was not welcomed. They argued to no end and found fault with each other’s cooking, dealing with the rituals, etc. Rajni’s mother was more an intruder than a relative. Every month, on the ceremonial shraad of her father, Mohan Pandit would leave his house early in the morning and return with a remark “My household is a mourning ground-I don’t know when will this imposition end?” The Bhat lady on her part also did not get along well and did not want to be enfolded in her daughter’s marital home. Some belligerent relatives of Mohan Pandit made cheap remarks, calling him a lucky man. “Now you are a custodian of two women, who can look after your needs.” Thus the ambers of domestic disharmony were singeing the household of Upendra and Rajni Pandit.
One morning the late Krishan Bhat’s wife announced “I will shift to my Verinaag house, near the Vyethavothur (source of vitasta) and spend my last days there, among the paddy fields and willow farms.” “But you will be alone” protested her daughter. “No, I have the farm hands-some of them are still our well wishers.”
But old Bhat woman was wrong. There came the tidings. Their barn and little house had been razed to the ground by a fire. She was destined to live with the people with whom she did not see eye to eye. Surprisingly, the bickering between the older generation hardly effected the relationship of the younger couple. Their mutual affection never got swayed, their passion for each other being rock firm. They laughed out the childish bickering of the older people. Nevertheless Rajni again took a decision. They will construct a new house, very much like their old houses in village with (Dab/Dalan) open balconies and closed pavilions. They will add an adjoining wing with a little kitchenette for her mother. “She may live for another fifteen years. Let her live with dignity.” She got a house loan. He had good savings. Little away-in the suburbs of the city, their house of need and dreams took shape. Though Mohan Pandit initially objected to the young couple’s ventures, his misgivings were not baseless altogether. This was the autumn of 87,the city saw hartaals, protests and processions of people. “These are not times to build for a Bhatta” were words of the carpenter who carved the khotum Bandi ceilings. “Who knows, I myself may recite Koran from this Dab (Balcony) in sun drenched afternoons.” “We will do it together…… I will be reciting my shloka facing the hill of Shankaracharya.” Mohan Pandit’s wife would discard his devious designs, but gently. Privately even her mother advised. “Think darling! Before you put all your savings into this project. This time, the whispers are audible. Wise people are slowly establishing business outside Kashmir.” Even their muslim neighbours had sent feelers.
But Rajni and Upendra had a strong allegiance in the governing body. After six months of toil and tenacity, the house was there. New and debonair with freshly painted walls and airy cool balconies. “It is just like the fairy house we used to conjure up in our childhood” remarked Rajni in her husband’s ears with teary eyes.
“And now two of us will grow old together here, in our katij aul (nest of swallows).”
Her mother was planted in her wing and she too was elated to have a space, her own corner. “I can have my own Vatuk and Pun after your father left me. I don’t have to be at the mercy of your in-laws” and hugged her daughter.
The euphoria was quite short lived like- as the summer of Kashmir. The simmering political cauldron had reached a boiling point and the lid had dropped. Militants were ruling the roost. Blood was flowing down the lanes and streets, blood of Pandits, army, militants, civilians caught in cross-firings. Mother Kali wandered the abandoned roads, the thirsty tongue lolling out, dancing with fierce eyes, naked and unabashed-punishing and menacing. Kashmir was in the grip of terror, and Bhattas the softest targets. Then came the night of 20 Jan 1990 when Bhattas were warned, in every corner of the valley, in plain words to flee or take a bullet at the hands of Islamic zealots.
By middle of that summer, Kashmir’s 95% of the Hindu population had left, leaving behind forlorn houses.
But Upendra Pandit’s family still held on. They had no heart to leave their katij aul and the only home they knew. The tenacious attachment had to pay-one night, when a fire started, as if the flames came down from heavens to reduce the beautiful house of Panditas to rubble. The exotic wood work was reduced to ashes and ashen were the faces of the unfortunate family. Fire extinguishers did arrive; strangely the fire took whole night to put off. The smoke kept on belching out of the smoldering mass for days. Together they covered the sooty mass with tarpaulin as the autumn sky started to pour.
Next day Mohan Pandit was accosted at the road side by his barber “Panditji” and he fell into his step “These young people have young heads on their shoulders-But you are wise and experienced. I insist-leave-at once-for your physical safety and that of the child.” If somebody said that a human being is the master of fate and captain of his soul, the Pandits proved it wrong. They were the slaves of fate, their ship was captained by militants. They left. After an initial stay of a week with a Dogra friend, they rented a tenement of a hall and a kitchenette for Rs.1500 a month. When ten year old Basant was left in the care of his grandparents, Rajni and Upendra joined the band wagon of other displaced people in Jammu. They had to register themselves for relief, ration cards, blankets and provisions. They had to study the status of their jobs. Still kept going stubbornly to stand up to this calamity. And proved that they could survive, they indeed were made up of a tougher stuff. After countless sittings outside the assembly in Jammu, screaming themselves hoarse with slogan mongering, they saw a light at the end of their migratory tunnel.
The Government orders were issued - the ladies could attend the city A.G’s office. Rajni joined till she got absorbed in some other state and Upendra could draw the basic of his salary. They had a breather. Basant also started attending his camp school for migrant children. The hot climate however inflicted miseries on the older generation more; the younger ones being occupied with mundane affairs of day to day life and providing for others. The heat from heavens brings forth all kinds of pests and livid insects which people back in Kashmir had not even heard of. One fateful night when Mohan Pandit’s wife was lying down on the bare floor, not able to withstand the steamy warmth of hot air, she was stung by a scorpion. Already very feeble in constitution, her leg right from her foot to her upper extremities was paralyzed by a stroke. The swollen surface of skin glowed. Not able to arrange a sophisticated treatment, she succumbed; the scorpion bite proved fatal for the unfortunate woman. Not only did the unfortunate family suffer death of a dear one but also faced an ironically singular state of affairs-Rajni’s mother and Upendra’s father were left alone in a lodging of 600 sqft, when others left in the morning. There were moments of awkwardness, crossing each other on their way to loo, brushing their teeth in the same basin and also to eat sharing the kitchen space. The older man was rendered irritable and picked up quarrels with his female relative.
Décor of manners, norms of attitude-all had been left behind in Kashmirwhere relationship with a samdhi required propriety. One afternoon when Rajni’s mother, very politely asked him “Mahara, can I serve your Thali?” The man faced her with a scowl and folded his hands in mock humility “Hatt Bhi, (Madam) will you please spare me and leave me alone- This is my son’s house- I have the liberty to eat my meals the way I want and the time of the day I desire. You are not the hostess to take the trouble” Rajni’s mother got the message. She did not belong there.
“Mahara-I am only trying to cheer you up in your grief……..you have been my husband’s closest friend. Your attitude does not conform to that relation”.
“And you forget that I am Rajni’s father-in-law-Good Family women have a propriety which you lack” admonished her relative and left her in tears, caused by the bad bearing of this man.
“You have left behind the prudence of a Bhatni in Kashmir, even forgotten to cover your head” he added.
“Oh! The cruel terrorists, thunderbolts fall on their dwellings- why did not they aim one of their bullets at me.”
Till date, between Rajni and her husband-existed a bond that eased all flings- There were no dissentions.
Now disagreements were frequent, Upendra attained a calm indifference .In the close vicinity of a single room; the young couple craved for a quiet corner to exchange or discuss issues. Rajni had to act. She could not let her mother go through this bullying. Next morning, she caught hold of Upendra’s hand. “Upen, come to my office, we can work through it and find a way out.”
“O.K-I will come with you” Upendra as understanding as always. There also they had to share their woes with other migrant colleagues as all migrants had a common cabin.
“Why don’t you build………sell your Srinagar house” was the suggestion.
Yes, why not. Every other displaced person was doing the same.
“No”, protested Upen. Their house, their beautiful katij aul -their home “”Which has been plundered and razed to the ground-forget about the sentimentalities and let it serve your practical needs-when two of you are safe you can contrive another katij aul”.
“No, it will be a crow’s nest here………swallows don’t inhabit hot places” remarked others. The discussion yielded a result.
Upendra’s stoicism gave way. Yes they would sell his much treasured home. His implicit trust in his wife was getting little shaken. He looked with disbelief at his wife when he heard her uttering the words “sheer liability, useless mortar” for their home. Rajni and Upendra had reacted very differently to their exodus and loss. In selling their house Rajni found a means to end her mother’s throes and her own redemption from unnecessary bickering.
Pandit property had attracted buyers the way bees are to honey. The prospective buyers came in numbers, but what Pandits got was peanuts compared to the actual price. With available amount, after repaying the loan, what they could raise was a two room little set. But Rajni’s mother got a little cell where she passed her days without confronting the male relative. To some extent life got settled, though its flow felt unmoored. Rajni attended office, Upendra found odd assignments from building contractors. They were the same people, yet there was an unseen chasm that occurred between them. “Your uncanny acumen and ruthless business sense has killed my sweet simple Rajni holding her little chin up”. Upendra often complained “ we have left our true selves there”……She pointed towards the far mountains “ beyond Bannihal …..There -my motive is to live and live with a vengeance. We are designing our lives a new , adapting to new climate …new vegetables….and new needs” she added.
“We are not the same people even to each other “. She saw the sadness in her husband’s words “as long as two of us are together”… Are we really together?” Upen completed the sentence with his question. The days dragged. Rajni qualified a departmental test but did not avail of the new post as she would be posted elsewhere. Upendra too let go an opportunity in the Middle east. Their Basant needed them and his career an overseeing.
Their son, who was but a child when they had fled from Kashmir had little traits of Kashmir left in him apart from his complexion. He hated Kashmiri food, the kashmiri pheran and had no regard for the language. He even hid the fact of his being a pandit boy. So, after ten years of their migration, when other Bhatta adolescents thronged to remote areas of Maharashtra to avail an engineering spot, Basant had joined a gliding club. He had other plans for his life. He did not want to use a position of stigma. “People make fun of Pandits there” he argued. Meanwhile, they annexed a garage to their little house and two rooms on top of it for their son and an occasional visitor. They owned a car now. Basant was a good student, but not studious. He loved flashy style and glamour. One day he came home to announce that he wanted to be a pilot.” Yes sit for an entrance test of NDA and if qualified you can join Air Force” suggested his father.
“Who wants to join Force”! He quailed “I will be a commercial pilot” he had all the details ready. The training will take him to America. He will have to clear an entrance test in Delhi. But the hitch was that staggering amount Basant had quoted, 25 lakhs! “We will take an educational loan”! the lad chalked out the whole plan.
“How do we repay with our shoestring budget? Upendra’s natural question was answered by his overzealous wife.“Anything for our child, our only child” Upendra sat down. Now he was actually nervous. Whenever his wife lay her heart on something, she would go to any length to get it. They had grown up together. “ I will take the promotion …My salary will have a marginal rise and … and you will take that job in Gulf”.
“I had thought …displacement from Kashmir would leave us somber, even austere but our aspirations and ambitions have crossed all bounds”. Upendra was very upset with Rajni’s impractical answer to the problem.
“ Displacement does not mean lamenting the lost land …We have to move on”. Rajni said touching his shoulder. He pushed her away.
“ We have not only moved on ..We are almost celebrating our displaced status – Yes we have moved on as individuals ..yes…” He sighed.
“ The fact is that all others have strived to keep life going –The loss has to be taken in stride than to heart. Try to get a wink … we will talk tomorrow”.
Early next morning, Upendra, as if coming to senses after a swoon, suggested they should go for a walk – He and Rajni – two of them.
Upendra’s psyche still felt burdened. Rajni’s beautiful face which used to cheer him up, failed to provide a relief. He did not talk, but occasionally glanced at her face sideways. The almond blossoms of her cheeks were frayed, she wore make up, he abhorred it. Her eyes had no radiance. Perhaps she had ceased to be the cynosure of his eyes. Back home in Kashmir, every woman carried herself with grace and austerity of snow peaks, they looked sacred like Goddesses. Here the feminine beauty matched the looks of film actresses with arched eyebrows and painted lips, and his wife had attained all those demerits.
Rajni prodded – “we are not talking”. “We will go our ways .. you with your mother ..I, with my father and the young adult on his own”….I sat over the problem whole night. You are right – Husband and wife staying together is old fangled myth. Today we have to prosper -; prosperity unfortunately requires to stake this old fangled togetherness”. He talked dryly’
“We will meet every six months –your three year contract will be over like this” and she snapped her fingers.
Eleven years after their Hegira from homeland, they leapt the boundaries of the small town to follow their bigger dreams. He along with his father to Dubai. Rajni found a place in Ahmedabad as Assistant Accounts Officer and Basant to U.S. On their parting when her husband stroked her hair “ Till we meet again vaarkaar (in happy times )”. She said with welling up eyes. He smiled his humourless smile “ Yes if we come back after chasing a mirage”. As regards the older man and woman, they were more than happy to be saved of confronting each other every day.
Upendra’s joining the new place was quite uneventful and surprisingly smooth. The desert city might be harsh in weather but extravagantly kind to its employees. The luxurious and spacious villa with air conditioner running 24x7. The rich delicious food made Mohan Pandit delirious with joy. “This is a better option to mud strewn lanes of Srinagar and scorching heat of Jammu”. He stated happily. “ You don’t miss your Hari Parbhat and the Devi”. His son asked with menacing mischief. “No – This is her ordained decree”. He was however merrily unaware of a disturbing actuality – which ate at Upendra’s vitals. A month after his joining the new project, he was served with a show cause notice from Kashmir government. He had to report to his mother concern; he had left the country without proper permission from his department.
Every educated and skilled young person had taken up additional assignments, primarily to meet the exhilarating expenses, which they could not on a basic salary they drew. The Government realized and relented. But going out of the country was unlawful. This was the doing of the man who had rented their house. He had provided even Upendra’s address. This was conveyed to Rajni who was trying tooth and nail to carry on in a new office, new place. First fifteen days on reaching Ahmedabad, she put up in her official guest house. To rent a house, she had to cough up a huge amount as the advance towards rent. Then came forward a good Samaritan, her junior in position and in age too. This was P C Joshi but everyone called him Joshi. He was a general do-gooder and always at the disposal of a colleague or a friend. He had his mother’s outhouse to rent. He lived in another wing with his mother. After introducing Rajni to his mother, he instructed her in local tongue, that the advance money had to be exempted considering their unlucky status. They had lost property in Kashmir where from they had migrated. His mother’s womanly instinct alerted Rajni’s future landlady. She looked with piercing gaze at Rajni’s not so young face and found it quite attractive with her tilted nose with a stud, pahadi aankhen, eyes peculiar to mountain races, chest nut hair and strange complexion. She questioned about the status of her family – and husband. “When he comes back, they will all be in their own house ..” Rajni’s mother replied for her daughter. “ In Kashmir?....” asked the landlady. “ No … somewhere” The kashmiri woman had no idea. They got the outhouse. Joshi eventually acquired a Man Friday stance in Rajni’s life. Right from fixing a milk man to gas connection to groceries, even to introducing to a local medical practitioner he was there flanking her. He arranged cots and little items of furniture too. He was helpful to others, but here he eagerly waited to be of use to Rajni. Within two months of the mother daughter duo’s stay in his house, Joshi was at Rajni’s beck and call.
Upendra’s official notice was not acknowledged (as advised by Rajni ), but six months later, he received another one, this time quite shrill “ It is here again” He informed his wife. “There are two options – I am to handover the salary of two years and resign or join immediately as assistant executive engineer in Leh Ladakh – And from the core of my heart – I want to go back –leaving this desert”. “Desert is a money mine “. You cannot leave this project – 15000 a month is needed towards the bank loan”. While this was transpiring between husband and wife, he could catch a male voice. “Is it your friend ..Joshi?” Rajni felt an edge in his voice.
“He has come for a little culture of curds “, she replied.
“At 10.30 in the night”! remarked her husband.
“Why are you jealous like a teen aged lover”, she laughed, though little guilty.
Rajni wanted to state a fact, that she could not, should not shun his company. He had assumed the dimension of a habit –Good or bad, who knew?.
Upendra received another one stating that he would be facing a criminal action, if and when he returned to India.
Now they could not meet as planned- husband and wife became inaccessible to each other. Meanwhile Rajni carried on with her job. Previously Joshi offered her a lift on his two wheeler. Suddenly one day out of the blue, he excitedly requested her to accompany him when they were about to leave for their office. Rajni saw a frosted blue Zen near the threshold.
“You were not comfortable on the scooter – so this thing here is at your disposal – your –our commuting will be more pleasant.
Rajni was taken aback –she was at a loss for words, and didn’t know how to react to Joshi’s excited statement. She was nonplussed – did not know now whether to thank his gallantry or reject it as a flirtatious advance. Rajni Madam – I want you to realize that only motive of my life now is to make you happy”.” Thank You – But you don’t buy happiness by bribing individuals “Rajni stated matter of factly. His mother called from her first floor window. “He has incurred a loan of three lakhs to snuggle with a fair skinned slert”. She said in her native tongue. “You are his Maharani”. Rajni did not get the import of the old lady’s taunt.
Rajni and Upendra had been away from one another for two years now. Her son came to join the women to spend the vacation of three weeks. She had left him a boy and received him as a young man with his father’s delicate and chiseled features. He looked debonair in his uniform.
“All this is worth any sacrifice – looking at you with tons of confidence written large in your eyes, I am speechless, what more could I have asked for”. For some days Rajni was totally engrossed in Basant. Yet the ecstasy of reunion wore off. The boy was particularly restive as he noticed the familiarity between his mother and Joshi. He did not take it positively. “Ma – this man should not come and go to this place, our place, at his will” Rajni felt the manly authoritative tone in her son’s voice. She should not brush off the young man’s dilemma. “sit down my darling –let us talk – when we fled Kashmir, after securing our lives, the paramount issue was education to our children. You know –your father and I endured a separation –a temporary one –to materialize your dreams. We have started a journey –it will continue ----till I reach my goal” added the pacified son.
Rajni sighed “Goal for your generation –For our generation, the struggle will continue till our end. We have ridden the bad times –over looked the smaller omissions for the larger good of your generations”.
“Whatever you say ---But I am sure – I can’t stand this man’s unwanted grin” her son again alluded to Joshi.
“O.K, remember Alice and Cheshire cat’s grin – dismiss his presence as insignificant”.
However Basant decided to spend the other half of his vacation with his father and promptly left though his mother did not dissuade him. The old woman was shrewd enough to grasp that things were not in order. She felt sure that confronting Mohan Pandit every morning was more in taste than Ahmedabad and Joshi. “I wish, Raginya Bhagvati had caused a militant’s bullet to hit me, there in Kashmir –that would be a death of dignity. The pit falls of this worthless life have sunk us to dirty depths”.
Joshi was a man of multiple calibers, a ready man for social service, guide to everyone, one could rely on his succor. He chaperoned Rajni to courts to fight her insurance case, to banks as security –He was there everywhere with her. Too much of familiarity led their colleagues to take them as a couple as they had a common residence. Rajni had been in this office for more than two years and nobody had seen her husband visit her. Some even doubted his existence.
Once it happened when all of her colleagues were relaxing in the canteen, Joshi casually stated “since Rajni madam gave me a taste for kashmiri food, I have come to love it”. There was a roar of meaningful laughters. “You are very lucky sir” came one voice.
A lady exclaimed gleefully “So you cook for him”. Rajni coloured and left.
She sat down away from this medley crowd. “Was she being linked with Joshi”? she was past forty five – not a young girl.
Should she search for another lodging –after all with her money –she could rent a smaller portion. But, this also was a fact –she had gotten used to Joshi’s company. Till she was in Ahmedabad –she had to live in his house. But what does Joshi himself think about this relationship –if it could be called that –ought she talk to him? What would Upendra say. She had noticed, post Basant’s visit, Upendra her childhood mate, her husband’s cozy talk on phone was absent> Even his calls got rarer. It was she who made the calls. Why could not she just call off her friendship with Joshi. “No” she thought “ she had no heart to do it, Her isolation had consummated her person. She did not want his presence, she needed him. She would not allow even her little finger to be touched by him yet her system had been caressed delicately by this subtle connection. She looked at her watch, it will be early dawn there in Dubai, she called Upendra with a thumping heart.
“Hello” that was all Upendra could hear. Then followed a train of sobs and noise from a sniffing nose.
“Upendra come back …come back “.
“What about the loans ?He whispered almost insensitively. And then added.
“In establishing ourselves outside our home –we turned adventurers. And all these squabbles and brick bats had to follow”.
“Come back ---to me ---to home”.
“Where is that ? –Jammu –Ahmedabad, America or Leh –where are we to go”. There was a pause “Listen to me –the way you used to my words of caution as a young girl. Had he harmed you physically, that would be forgiven, but he has damaged you emotionally. Disentangle yourself from the spurious clutch –promiscuity is not only physical adulterousness. Bring back the confidence in you – and get yourself free of this hinge. Your perspective is in chaos”. And he hung up.
Upendra’s calls became more perfunct. They talked money matters and repaying loans. His candour never suggested that he missed her.
After one more year ---Basant got two weeks off. He called his mother; obviously he was not visiting her. At the same time he had a proposal. “Mom, take a month off, we both will join Daddy”. He said eagerly.
“Well Basant”, she paused “what about my mother –should we leave her alone?”. He had no answer. He did visit his father. He called from there.
“Mom –this is all men’s world. We at Dad’s we cooked fish –grand pa so wanted. Daddy fried and taught me how to cook fish” Rajni knew how Upendra loved fish “ If only I could cook for him”. God knows what instinct prompted her to call Joshi to her room and pour out all her woes. “Even Basant -my son does not like me –I am an abandoned woman, nobody needs me –nobody loves me”.
“You are wrong ---you, Rajni, are my cosmos. After you came into my life, A strange kind of fulfillment has dawned upon me. You are an important cog in the wheel of my life. In your absence, all that constitutes life, stops”.
She could have told him to go to hell and chastise him for his bold words instead she was reduced to a mute listener by his honesty.
“For me you are a friend, a cordially amicable person” (she said). I have come closer to you beyond the permissible measures but don’t take me for a denigrate woman. Perhaps, I am alone and feel low in spirits. My lady colleagues don’t interact with me –also I am a little higher in hierarchy _ I can’t mingle with girls who have been appointed fresh”.
“For you – I may be an available errand boy …but I find no company among my colleagues now …People call me your ---your keep”.
Stop it …Joshi ….” Rajni could not look into his eyes. “Even my mother calls me that ---But I don’t mind …”
Rajni was not wary of the contempt she had noticed in old woman’s eyes for her. She, his mother, quite naturally wanted him to have a normal life, get married and have a family, instead of hovering around this much married woman “kashmiri migrants ---my foot” the old lady would shout addressing to nobody in particular “ why does not Government send all their women to kalapani”.
That night, Rajni, after turning off the lights of their only bed room where she shared the cot with her mother, placed her hand on her mother’s shoulder “ Ma –listen to me ---Do you think I am wrong ---I mean if a male colleague is intimate to you in a strange place and one finds his company stipulating ---“.
“You are sending wrong wibes ---because you exercise a right on him and he abides by your dictates ---I too am to be blamed for your ordeal. Lal Ded had prophesied centuries before “Maji korey nerun athwas karith” mothers and daughters will set together on the path of decadence”. The old lady’s throat choked “ Don’t talk nonsense mother –you have brought me up with open minded progressive thinking …I am forty five –not sixteen”.
“Yes …But we also believe that “Mazaar bals tanye che hazzaar balay, thousand and one evils follow a woman up to her grave -was not it my enjoined duty to stop you from sending Upendar to an unseen future”, she wiped her tears and said “In the morning …call Upendar –either you join him or ….or let him go to Leh --Leave this place ---otherwise this chasm of distances will widen and you will fall face down”. Next morning she did call Upendar who constantly kept disconnecting her calls.
Joshi waited in the car, when Rajni did not join him as usual for office, he went to her apartment and saw her still snuggling under a sheet. “ I am not well”. She avoided an eye contact and he left. Upendar called in the afternoon, his voice had attained the curtness of late. “You had called” without beating about the bush, Rajni said “ Upendar ! Come back”.
“To face a police action”? He was again curt.” No, to join your job in Kashmir”.—“And,I will join you in some months” was her rejoinder.
“Rajni –it has been three years, ---three long years of separation between you and me. He is a real presence, my existence has been reduced to a voice on phone”.
“Don’t be vague and harsh.. you know as much as I, this exercise was to make the career of our only child”.
“You remember Rajni, when we ran to fly our kites on the fields in Verinag –sometimes it would be drifted and then lifted higher and higher. Finally, it would appear only a tiny speck in the blue skies. Then we would clap our hands “ it is a (taruk) star now, we would shout. We have become taruk for each other, not within each other’s reach” and he hung up -suddenly.
What next ? Yes, she would talk to her son, about the finishing of his courses. But Gods above were bent upon her ruin –and they conjured up tricks. Just after a day when she had an argument with Upendar, a dull pain in her abdomen turned excruciating in the night. Her mother gave the tablets, Rajni asked her to –but in vain. As the night advanced, the intensity of the pain increased. She threw up and both the women were shocked to see blood. Now what! Who else but Joshi took the reins of Rajni madam’s life, though his mother tried to stop him to go out in the dead of night. In a jiffy, the car with the patient at his side holding her belly and her mother in the back seat scurried past obstacles, towards the hospital. She was admitted in the emergency. The tests revealed the cruel truth. The ulcer in her stomach which she had been neglecting had perforated. She had a severe hemorrhage. “She needed immediate surgery …and yes, she needed blood transfusion as well” Joshi was instructed. He gave his own, in exchange of what the blood bank provided. “Don’t let Basant know …he has to appear …she uttered even while being wheeled into the operation theatre. She survived the medical emergency owing to ever available Joshi.
Upendar’s reaction to this particular event was quite weird.
“Why did not you wait for me” he called even when she was under heavy sedation.
“There was no time” Rajni managed to whisper.
“Let me be out of the hospital”…she thought “ I will explain and he will …her own Upendar , he will understand – we will talk – iron out all wrinkles in our life”.
Next morning, she was made to sit leaning against an upraised bed. Her brain was raking as if demons were fighting inside.
“They should have not left Kashmir –not a day’s peace they had known after that fateful exodus”, she thought. The tears of retribution ran down her ashen cheeks. And Joshi opened the door, both his hands laden with fruits and sundry things. He eyed her grimaced face and slowly advanced towards her. “Rajni, forget problems for now…..you have been on death’s door…….and I won’t see my labour going a waste”.
Rajni, on her part realized that he had dropped the suffix Madam from her name.
He lifted her chin gently and wiped the tears with his fingers even cradled her head delicately. The compassionate embrace brought more tears. While he was holding her, Rajni’s mother opened the door and was embarrassed.
“Mother, Joshiji has been my saviour…”, Rajni conveyed to conceal her awkwardness.
“Yes…..he is good to everyone”, said her mother diluting the praise.
“No, for Rajni it is anything from me……I could not let her go… he added, “Please don’t strain, let us not touch on unpleasant things right now.”
He left the room. The two women were alone now but the room was filled with squeamishness. And suddenly her mother burst, “After leaving the hospital – you will join your husband…immediately”.
“And you”, Rajni’s concern was genuine.” Leave me alone….one small error of judgment led to another……and today I had the misfortune of witnessing this shameful scene”, referring to Joshi’s embrace.
The old woman sat on the sick bed, looked straight into the eyes of her daughter.
“You are a Bhatni, Rajni, for heaven’s sake keep the sanctity of this name. Take this phase of life as a bad patch - you stumbled, but did not fall totally. Salvage your things, dust your clothes and join your husband”. After being discharged she called her son and apprised him of her plan. The mother will stay with one her cousins in Jammu and she will join his father.
Then she got up to get her papers ready. Looking into her cupboard, she noticed that her passport was missing. Her legs gave way. Her hand could not move, as if a deadly wasp had numbed it with its sting. Joshi had taken the charge of her life into his own hands. How and when - she had to locate, when things had gotten awry. But what had been done could not be undone. Could she still retrieve whatever was left? A surge of agitation ran through her veins and she felt energized. She dragged her still convalescing body to Joshi’s apartments.
“Joshi, you have stolen my papers…….”
“They are with me….safe…..I knew you would make such an attempt.”
“I want them immediately……now…..”
His mother came out with the passport and threw it on her face.
“Take this and set this fool free from your vice-like grip”.
“No – I won’t let you go…. You have not recouped.” He pounced upon her passport.
“I implore you”….she wept the tears of helplessness and bent down to touch his feet. Joshi’s mother, in order to disentangle her son’s leg, pushed Rajni whose emaciated body had no prowess to resist. She tumbled down the stairs. The impact opened up the sutures and the whole space was wet with gushing blood. Rajni went into a shock. She opened her eyes only once and found herself in the arms of Joshi.
“Don’t tell them…………you held me. I don’t want to die in your arms.”
Upen was aroused by yet another ringing. He did not know when his tears had dried and his eyes sealed. His father was sitting facing him. It was he who was answering the phone.
“She has been killed”, he told his son. Upen bent his head, he could not look into his father’s old eyes. “By that man’s mother”, he added.
Upen went back to Kashmir to join his job and continued to live in Leh, behind the baron mountains, away from the dry, dusty , hot winds.
A dream however haunted him. He and Rajni playing – running, twittering and giggling – and his little Rajni’s foot slips and she falls into the verinag spring and is gobbled down by a giant fish.
*Parineeta Khar nee Zutshi was brought up in an extended family where joys and sorrows, even the illness and career of a child was a shared affair. Although she is a science graduate,. the penchant for English literature stood in her stead ; She came out with an Honours in English literature. She further accomplished her Masters in the same subject from the University of Kashmir.
Her restless existence had no time to grow as she got married during her university days. Her husband’s career tossed her on to the far off lanes of Paris. Motherhood, responsibilities of a wife and a daughter-in-law and running a household with a scientist husband kept her busy for a good part of her energetic years.
When the demand for her other roles diminished – she had time to reminisce. The stored up memories gushed out in a deluge. She started writing short stories for local newspapers.Her first book “ ON THE SHORES OF THE VITASTA” was published from the Writer’s Workshop of Calcutta. The other book “ WE WERE AND WE WILL BE “ was published from Utpal Publications, Delhi. Her stories depict a celebration of life – a continuation of life. Parineeta and her family have been living in Hyderabad from the last twenty eight years..
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