This is the last piece in an eight-part series on Urdu fiction by contemporary Indian writers. Rakhshanda Jalil is the curator and translator for this series.
RENU BEHL (1958-): With a Master's in Public Administration, Political Science, and Urdu, and a PhD in Urdu, Behl has written several collections of Urdu short stories: Aaeena, Ankhon se Dil Tak, Koi Charasaz Hota, Khushboo Mere Aangan ki, Badli Mei Chhupa Chand, Khamosh Sadaye, and Dastak. Her Urdu novels include Gard Mei Atey Chehre; Mere Hone Mei Kya Burai Hai; a novel on transpeople; and a Hindi novel titled Kasturi. Apart from awards for her books from various Urdu academies, she has also been the recipient of the Shiromani Urdu Sahityakar Award from the Punjab Government in 2014, and the Award of Excellence from the Chandigarh Sahitya Academy in 2015.
Draupadi Has Woken Up | Renu Behl
Shadows of the silent night had begun to lengthen. But there was still some commotion in the tin-roof shacks selling the local brew on the outskirts of the village. Nihal Singh had reached with Charan Singh as soon as the sun had set. Charan Singh was his childhood friend and knew well enough what troubled him. He knew that his own home seemed alien to Nihal Singh, since Bebe had passed away and he had become weary of his own life.
As the two drank, Charan Singh tried to draw Nihal Singh back towards life. Nihal Singh kept listening to his friend. As he steadily grew more intoxicated, Nihal Singh became quieter. As they were leaving the shack, Charan Singh tried to persuade his friend to come along with him. With stumbling steps and faltering tongues – sometimes in raised and sometimes in lowered tones, leaving some things said and some unsaid, sometimes to each other and sometimes to themselves – the two began to walk back towards the village.
They came to a fork where their ways parted. The village lanes were deserted at this time of the night. The sound of frogs croaking somewhere in the distance broke the silence. A stumbling foot hit a dog sleeping beside the path, who woke up with a squeal, stepped back, then seeing the man walking on began to bark at his retreating back. He stopped and turned. With an ugly expletive flung towards the dog, he resumed walking.
The door to his house was locked. He banged on the door two or three times till Pammo opened it. She went towards the kitchen, mumbling something under her breath. He went and sat down on the takht laid out in the courtyard. His Bebe used to always sit on this takht when she finished all her errands. He spread his hand lovingly on the cloth covering the takht and began to wipe his wet eyes with his sleeve. Pammo returned within a couple of minutes with dal and roti for him. Without a word, she put the food down beside him on the takht and turned to leave when he held her wrist and asked: ‘Has Makhni gone to sleep?’
He called his younger brother, Makhan Singh, 'Makhni' as a form of endearment.
With a wrench, Pammo freed her wrist and began to walk back towards the kitchen without uttering a word.
‘I won’t give you any more trouble; I’ll go away.’
And he began to eat the food. He was completely full because of the alcohol. He barely ate two morsels and left the rest, taking the stairs to go up to the roof. Like always, his bed was laid out under the open sky. He fell down upon it.
When he looked up at the star-studded sky, he could see Bebe’s face among the clouds.
When he tried to open his eyes again, the strength to do so had left him. Lost to the world, he fell into a deep stupor.
Nihal Singh was not an alcoholic. Normally, he drank just about five or six times a year – when there was a sorrowful event or a happy occasion, such as a wedding. Though, yes, every three or four months, if he made a plan to go to the whore in the city, he would glug down some liquor on the quiet. But he never had the effrontery to drink in the village and appear before Bebe. He was the only one in the entire family who was scared of falling foul of Bebe; or, let us say, he didn’t want to do anything that would cause her pain. His younger brothers Makhan Singh and Baisakha Singh drank all the time and Roda Singh was way beyond Bebe’s control; he had become an addict long ago. Like thousands of other young men, he too was addicted to opium and cannabis. He was beyond fear or regard.
Nihal Singh lay like the dead all night. When the sun shone bright overhead, Makhan came to wake his brother. There was a time when Nihal was used to waking up at the crack of dawn. Every morning, Bebe’s sweet voice would be heard, reciting the Gurbani. It was always this sound that he woke to.
He always found the mornings to be sweet; he realised this only after Bebe passed away.
Now the mornings seemed insipid, the days colourless, and the house looked deserted. Little did he know then that the life and soul of that large household was none other than Bebe. Sitting on the takht in the courtyard, Bebe’s eyes would take in every inch of the house. Her voice was so strong and vigorous that Pammo could barely squeak in front of her. In fact, he had barely ever heard Pammo’s real voice properly. He had never felt the need to speak to her.
At one command from Bebe, Pammo would fetch whatever he needed to eat or drink. Her head covered, Pammo would go about quietly working in the house, never uttering a word. On several occasions, Nihal Singh had tried to address Pammo via Bebe, and Pammo too would look at him from the corners of her eyes. At such times, Nihal Singh would sense that Pammo was smiling. Once, when Pammo was within earshot, he praised the food she had made to Bebe. When Bebe added two words of praise, Pammo stood smiling. Nihal had asked Bebe, ‘Has an injustice been done to Makhan?’
‘What if she is mute?’
‘Go away! She can hear and speak. Ask Makhan... how much gossip she tells him.’
‘It’s hard to tell, Bebe,’ he had said softly.
She kept listening to every word without saying anything as she went about her chores.
Changing the subject, Bebe said, ‘I am thinking of speaking to Chanan.’
‘I’ll ask for his daughter’s hand for you?’
‘Do you know her age? She’s at least 15 years younger than I. Her father will never agree to the match. Don’t keep your hopes up.’
‘Hai! Hai! There’s a famine as far as girls are concerned.’
‘Why do you worry, Bebe? I am not the only bachelor in the city. If not here, my wife will be somewhere else. If I am destined to marry, I’ll find her. After all, our Makhni found his Pammo.’
‘I can’t sit and do nothing. I know exactly how her father agreed to this marriage. I intended to present you as a suitor, but they liked our fair and handsome Makhan.’
‘So what, Bebe? I am her jeth. And in the 12 months of the year, there is one month of the jeth,’ he said, smiling naughtily, as he looked towards Pammo who was washing clothes at the time. Bebe swatted him lightly on the head and said, ‘She’s your younger brother’s wife. Don’t tease her.’
Time passed. Bebe’s efforts yielded no fruit. Truly, there was a famine as far as girls were concerned. After all, Bebe too was happy having given birth to four sons. She too had declined to accept the verdict of nature. She had revolted against nature. Perhaps she was suffering because of that transgression. Her conscience reprimanded her. She suffered terribly, but did not say a word to anybody.
Bebe was very fond of Nihal; in fact, he was the closest to her of her four sons, possibly because he was her first born. No, actually her first born had been murdered in her womb by her mother-in-law before she was born. She didn’t want a daughter and her god on earth, that is, her husband, did not object to his mother and sat watching her helplessness. All her pleas went unheard.
She had two choices: She could save the baby in her womb, or she could save her marriage.
At that time, young, helpless Kesro sacrificed her first child to save her marriage. She had wept a great deal, but eventually that hurt, instead of breaking her, had made her stronger. For a long time she had not allowed her earthly god, her husband Pritam Singh, to come anywhere near her. She had smashed his masculinity to smithereens. Kesro’s words had fallen upon his ego like the blows of a hammer when, one night, she had pushed his hand from her body with utter disdain and said, ‘Have you taken permission from your Bebe before coming to me? If you haven’t, go and ask her first, you mother’s boy!’
She uttered these obscenities in a low voice, but they pierced through her husband’s ears like molten glass.
And then she came out of their room into the courtyard. That night, Pritam Singh had rolled over embers. He had realised that he was weaker and lowlier than her, despite being a man. From that night onward, he had left his mother’s hem and held on to his wife’s.
Pritam Singh’s Bebe simmered in silence while Kesro bloomed and flowered. One after the other, Kesro gave birth to four sons. When the first grandson was born, the grandparents were ‘nihal’, meaning ‘pleased’ to see him and so the grandmother named him Nihal Singh.
Two years later, a fair and bony boy was born, and Kesro had named him Makhan Singh. The next year, another son was born. The grandmother took one look at him and exclaimed, ‘Pritam what is this? A ‘roda’ (bald) child in the home of a sardar?’
And from that day onward, Pritam began to call the child Roda.
For three years in a row, the harvest would be ready in the fields, and in her home Kesro’s harvest would be ready too. The youngest boy, Baisakha, was born on the evening of Baisakhi. And that year, the festivities of Baisakhi had doubled.
As Kesro began to establish her strength and influence in the family, the mother-in-law’s grasp over the household began to loosen. She was happy to see the boisterousness displayed by her young grandsons, but Pritam did not live long enough to see his boys grow into men.
As Nihal grew up, Kesro began to weave dreams of seeing him dressed as a groom and getting married. She began to scout for suitable matches. Several boys who were older than Nihal had gone away to settle down in cities, simply because they were not able to find girls to marry in the village.
Bebe looked far and wide, even went to the neighbouring villages, but she found no bride for her eldest son. She could not have imagined in her wildest dreams that she would find it so difficult to get a bride for her favourite son. Every time she returned home empty-handed after the hunt for the elusive bride, she would say: ‘It seems there is a famine of girls. Everywhere you look, there are only boys. And if perchance you find a girl, then the family has such airs... they seem to want nothing short of a big landlord!’
Bebe’s worries increased as time passed. Four grown up boys — without a father — they had no one to fear or respect. They went about the village like bulls on a rampage. To pass time, they would drink and play cards, or hang around near the village pond and leer at the girls and women passing by, or else pass comments on the films they had watched on their mobile phones. Bebe was anxious to tie them down with the chains of domesticity and responsibility. She could not safeguard their youth from spilling over. All the time, she was fearful that they might stray and do something so shameful that it would forever cast a cloud over their lives.
Every now and then, she would caution them. She would address her old mother-in-law and say: ‘Are you happy now with four grandsons? Do you call this a home? They don't come home or leave at a fixed time, nor do they know how to conduct themselves in society. If they had had a sister, they would not have roamed around naked like this all around the house. There is not a single woman in the entire village who is ready to visit us in our house because of these wretched fellows and their ways. Now I have begun to feel that any one of them should get married. Things might improve if even one girl comes to live here. This house looks like a den of ogres!’
The old granny lived a long life and passed away without seeing any of her grandsons dressed as a groom. The four brothers managed the fields among themselves. Bebe looked after the house and the cattle. By now, she was tired of all the chores. Moreover, she was worried: How would their line continue? The other day, her friend Manjit was telling her how the Chaudhry’s son had run away with a village lad. What if one of her sons were to do the same? The very thought made her tremble with fear. She could no longer sit and do nothing.
Once again, she embarked on a crusade to find a bride. This time, she met with success. She had gone with a match for Nihal, but Pammo’s parents preferred Makhan. Despite all her misgivings, she had to eventually give in and agree to marry Pammo with Makhan.
Things had improved somewhat since the arrival of the new bride.
In fact, Nihal had found it a bit odd seeing the new bride roaming around the house. He was the eldest son, and had he got married, he would no doubt have wanted to immerse himself in the tinkle of bangles and the muted song of anklets. But now, he had begun to keep himself away from all this. He tried to spend as much time as he could outside the house.
Before Pammo’s arrival, he used to sleep in the courtyard with his brothers during the summers. Now the brothers slept on the roof. There used to be all three of them up on the roof; now there were only two, because Roda had begun to spend all his time outside the house. Despite all their efforts, Bebe and Nihal could not free Roda from the clutches of drugs. Soon, he stopped coming to the fields despite their persistence and began to demand his share of the land. Everyone knew why he wanted his share. His great-grandfather had 50 acres, which had dwindled over the years to 10 acres by the time his father had inherited it. Now these 10 acres were to be divided into four portions.
Bebe tried to placate and scold him by turns, but when Roda remained adamant, Bebe asked for a fifth share: that was her share. Roda took two acres and left the house.
Soon, Pammo took over most of the household chores. Bebe would sit in the courtyard and help as she read from the Holy Book. But she would also be mindful of Nihal and Baisakha’s needs. By repeating over and over again, she drilled it into Pammo’s head, ‘Look here, till your elder and younger brother-in-law get married, you are the one who has to do all their chores. You have to be mindful of all their needs. When their wives come, it will be another matter, but till then you must not step back from your duties.’
And Pammo would nod her head ever so slightly and say, ‘Yes’.
One night Nihal and Baisakha ate their meal and went up to sleep on the rooftop. They talked for a long time until Baiskha said somewhat hesitantly, ‘Brother, I have to say something important to you.’
‘Why were you talking about unimportant things till now?’ Nihal turned around and asked.
‘I was wondering if I should say it or not.’
‘What can it be? Out with it! I am sleepy... Tell me quickly: what is it?’
‘Jagtar is taking his truck to Calcutta on Wednesday; he’s asked me to come along. I am thinking of going with him.’
‘Why do you want to go with him?’
‘I...’ He began to stutter.
‘Look here Baisakha, tell me everything clearly. I know Kartar and I have an inkling about your inclinations. Tell me, what is it?’
‘I am tired of all the talk among our people. Lads much younger than me make snide comments. Men I grew up with, shared my childhood with, now cross the path when they see me, and if I were to go to the home of any one of them, they send me away from the door itself. Just because I am not married, it doesn’t mean that I have no respect.’
‘Where does the question of “respect” arise in all this? Bebe tried so hard to find a girl for us... What can anyone do if we are not destined to get married? Moreover, we are not the only unmarried men in the village... There are so many others like us.’
‘I don’t have your patience.’
‘What do you mean? Why don’t you speak clearly?’
‘I will go to Calcutta with Jagtar and find myself a wife there. He says it is easy to get a girl there.’
‘I see... So you will buy a wife!’
‘If that’s what you want to call it.’
‘Bebe will never agree to it. She will never accept a Bengali as her daughter-in-law. And think... You will have children tomorrow... Sikh children looking like Bengalis!’ The very thought made him laugh out loud.
‘Whatever will happen, will be for the best. They will be my children, after all,’ Baisakha retorted.
‘Look here, Baisakhe, it’s your life and you can live it whichever way you like, but I know that Bebe will never agree to this. She got enraged when she heard about the barber’s daughter, Kamlesho... So what if it was the widowed daughter of a barber, she was from our neighbourhood! What will she say if you bring home a Bengali?’
‘I don’t care... it’ll be good if she doesn’t understand others and no one can understand her. At least I will have a family of my own. At least people will stop talking.’
‘Think about this again. Talk to Bebe, get her to agree before you go off with Jagtar.’
‘That’s the difficult part. I’ll try to talk to her... But brother, why don’t you speak to her on my behalf?’
‘If I ever have anything to tell her, I will. Why should I speak to her for you?’
‘Aren’t you my elder brother?’
‘All right, go to sleep now; I’ll see what can be done in the morning.’