Wednesday, July 18, 2007

chulha te manji

In Punjab, there is a village called Ajitwal.

In Ajitwal, there is a family of farmers. They probably have roots in UP, but have been here for three or four generations and can only speak Punjabi, cook Punjabi, worry and laugh Punjabi.

One son-husband-father-farmer. He is bathing when I enter the house. The door is wide open, and he squats, in his underclothes, in a small bathroom. The door is shut after my arrival.

One old woman. The mother-grandmother-greatgrandmother who cannot hear, cannot speak even a little Hindi, speaks incessantly and makes dahi-lassi for breakfast.

One middle-aged woman. Fine wrinkles, a slow smile and incessantly busy hands that move, nevertheless, with a steady, noiseless rhythm. She works all the time and when you look at her, and she turns to look back at you and smiles a quiet smile, the work seems to fall away... somewhere. Where? Just off the edge of the your eye; just off the sides of her fingertips; just along the curved lines of her rubber slippers. She calls me Guddi. When I leave the house, she is the one who reaches out to embrace me. A tight, close embrace. Only my own mother has ever held me this close, this hard. It is the embrace of bone and blood and it is not afraid of civilization.

One young woman. Thin. Oh, so thin! A mother of two young children who race about, nervous at my newness. The 'noo' of the household. She too is incessantly busy. But harried-busy. So visibly busy with work that she herself seems invisible. When she pumps at the hand-pump, the cranking seems louder than the clink of her glass bangles. When she scrubs the dirty dishes, the very streaks of crusting daal seem to be letting out a slow moan. While she is utterly, utterly silent. Meeting my eyes with a quick smile, a too-wide smile behind which presses the urgency to get something else done. Quickly, once, she whispers, she never could go to college. They got her married after high school. I had not asked her.

Another young woman. Pleasantly plump. A full body. Fair. A loose, fat braid of pale-brown. The unmarried daughter of the house. It is she towards whom I am gently pushed. As if we belong together. It is she who leads me to the manji, sits cautiously at the other end and whispers - 'are you married?'

It is she who draws me into an inner room, to sit on a softer, modern bed, to whisper more questions - where? how? until when? how much? alone? mummy? daddy? why not?

And to whisper about her fiance - a student still, who lives with an aunt, who belongs to a village in Haryana. She too lived with an aunt in a slightly larger village, almost a town, until the year before. She went to college there. Here, in the village, she does nothing. She's done some crafts and embroidery courses, but she is not encouraged to practice any of it here. She says, her daddy says - 'do what you want, when you go to your own home'.

Her own home. I ask her - 'what's the village called? where your own home will be?'

She doesn't know. And suddenly, she clams up, and doesn't speak to me again, until after dinner.

Her mother, the tall one, the older 'noo' who is now the quietly confident mistress of the house, beckons me. Asks me what I will eat. I shrug - anything, whatever you're eating.

But they have already eaten. They eat before sundown. The chulha is lit for me again. An open-air chulha fed with dry twigs. The smoke rises. The children gain courage. They dance around me. The little girl is dressed almost exactly like her older brother. She tugs at the hem of my kurta and runs away. Returns. Tugs at my dupatta. Runs away. Her brother follows suit.
Their greatgrandmother calls them. Takes the little one into her lap - 'Tell her a poem. Sing her a song.' They coax. The little one is suddenly shy, near tears. She looks victimized. I look away.

Their young mother is invisibly there, somewhere. Her shadow lurks near the kitchen.

The mother of the house is rolling out roti again, the daughter is taking them out of a warm tandoor. They feed me. They do not let me wash my own plate.

Later, a row of manjis are laid out under the open sky. A whirring stand-up fan is placed near my bed.

And just when I am about to lie down, the mother and daughter beckon. I follow them out. Their brother-son is at the gate, carrying one of his children. We walk a few houses away, in complete starlit silence. A large metal gate. A few knocks and calls. A smaller door opens within the large gates. We stoop to enter.

A cousin. Full-ish. Smiling. Another mother, tall-ish, rushing about to get milk. Four times, I have turned down offers of warm milk this night. But here, it is handed to me. Protests fall on smiling, deaf ears. Milk.

This young girl sews. Fabric is strewn all around a machine. Her mother feels my kurta - 'Cotton... is it?', and she sounds disappointed. They all wear soft , printed cottons. I wear the loose kurti of an old woman. The young ones all wear them tight.

The younger girls pull me away, take me to a small barsati at the top of the house, onto a balcony. The cool night air. Again, the whispered questions - where? alone? why? why not? man? can't you find?

I smile a lot. Shake my head a lot. They giggle a little. We descend when the questions are done.

The engaged girl has brought along a letter. It is from her fiance. Addressed to the whole family, not to her. She is a passing reference, respectfully regarded in the last paragraph. Her cousin reads it. Her cousin's mother reads it. Her own mother glances at it. She's already read it.

I finish the milk. We step out into the silence. Back on the eerie dirt road. Only a few houses, but such utter loneliness. Back into a small door cut into large metal gates.

The man of the house is half-asleep. He sits up. We all gather round to talk of water, of fields, and deep, deepening dryness. Of salinity and pumps. The baggy bleakness of his eyes. The shifting silence on the wrists of the women. Greatgrandmother, grandmother-wife, wife-mother, daughter. Printed cotton, so still in the soft folds of patiala shalwars.

The fan whirrs. I lie down next to the engaged girl, unfold a rough sheet.

The stars are such medicine.

Dreams are as cold, village wells.

Dawn breaks to the chink of glass bangles.


Pushkar Sheth said...

WOW !!
Swades, revisited !!

dipali said...

Almost universal 'desi' truths in a
Beautiful and oh so evocative

questionairre said...

Am reminded of The Bookseller of Kabul, an indicting study of Afghan family life, primarily the state of women and patriarchy.

The similarities are scary.

pawan said...


Swati said...


Esp loved the last few lines write beautifully.

~nm said...

The way you wrote it I almost started imagining myself in your place. Its beautiful!

Vesper said...

this is gorgeous!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jai_Choorakkot said...

Sorry for this double comment, since it was a bit negative, I didnt want anybody to go on a tangent at my anonymous cowardliness etc. Pls delete the above comment which was mine but anon.

Also, sorry for the OT.
This was very well written Annie.

OTOH, some of your recent writing:
- for Pratibha Patil on HTOHL
- "if you dont like JBJ, go watch Roshomon"

have disappointed me enough, that I shall be reading less of you and commenting rather infrequently.

This is most likely good news for you :-) just ask Dilip D'Souza whose blog I used to infest.


Jai_Choorakkot said...

For somebody who posted the above comments, this will look silly, but did you edit the 5th para or thereabouts.

I seem to remember a line like " a lifetime of work had made her own" about the elder noo. Pls clarify.

Promise to start the infrequent commenting phase right after this :-)


annie said...

pushkar: have not seen the whole length of swades, but am assuming it was a complimentary comment :)
dipali: thanks
questionairre: have not read the book yet. but women aren't exactly free in large parts of india.
pawan: i'll just assume that bace means nice. :)
swati, nm, vesper: thanks
jai: will do so. and entirely your call. and I do edit my posts quite frequently. So, I don't remember what exactly I took out, but have taken out a few lines for the general improvement of the piece.

dodo said...

Hey Annie, that was beautiful -- just like every other post of yours! I know that it's not always easy, but your work looks so appealing. I wish I wasn't stuck in this dead cubicle - breathing artificial air :(.

Shantanu said...

Beautifully written; I was there when I was reading it. Made me remember times from my past when I spent vacations in rural settings (not in Punjab, but other places in UP and in Bengal).

small talk said...

I just love your writing.

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