Authors: Manju Kapur
With this gold Nisha’s dowry was begun.
Vicky hovered at the edge of the relatives milling around the baby. He remembered how in Bareilly, as the only child of his parents, he had longed for someone to play with.
A few times he had pleaded, ‘Amma, get me a brother.’
Her reply: ‘So your father has someone else to beat, and I have someone else to suck my blood.’
‘I’ll protect him.’ Thus the child urged, begging his mother for something no one else could give him.
‘Before you can protect anybody I’ll be dead.’
‘No, you won’t. You can’t be dead before I have a chance to beat him for beating you.’
‘Shush, don’t say such things. There will be sin upon your head. He is your father. Better I die, then they will come to take you.’
‘Your uncles, grandmother, and grandfather. They love you like anything. Only he doesn’t let us go and see. Never mind. After I die.’
And now she was dead, and he was here, like she had said. The baby drew him back to his own mother and he wept and wept, shedding every tear accumulated over the past year and a half.
Nisha’s birth meant a certain neglect of Vicky, now nobody’s particular responsibility. Vicky made up for this lack by crying, first in bewilderment, then as a means of communication. In his old home he had cried seldom – he was silent with his father, and with his mother there had been no need for tears.
Here his crying was a weapon, but in whose hands it was not yet clear.
Sona lay tranquilly on her bed. For forty days the pollution of birth was upon her, she could do nothing, not even be with her husband who during this time joined Vicky in the dining room. Yashpal tried to pay Vicky attention, asking school all right, homework all right, eating all right. When the boy stared at him silently, Yashpal gathered him to his chest, never mind, his aunt would soon be better, and in the meantime here, here was his baby sister, his to love and protect, his own sister.
Nisha was lain next to the dark gangly boy, her kaajal-smudged face, closed eyes, pale skin, and little pink mouth folded inwards, still and sleeping. Vicky looked at her – she was so small, he couldn’t help but be distracted.
Yashpal noticed the boy’s absorption, and in the evenings when he had his daughter, he would allow the boy to hold her. He was very cautious with the little bundle, balancing her carefully over legs stiffly clenched together. In addition to the wonder of something so tiny was the full attention of his uncle hovering over him.
‘What a caring nature the boy has, just like his mother,’ remarked Vicky’s grandmother. ‘She always looked after other people, slaving for them day and night.’
Vicky looked solemn, glad of the comparatively rare mention of his mother. It reminded him that it was through her that he had a rightful place in this house, a place that often seemed doubtful. With Nisha, he could pretend she was his real sister and there was no distinction between them. He thought all these things between coming home from school, playing cricket in the evenings, and labouring over his homework upstairs.
Sushila was quite anxious that her sister-in-law recover soon from her birthing ordeal – three children were too much for her to manage.
‘Perhaps there is no space in her heart,’ remarked Sona to Yashpal. Motherhood increased the things she could openly say.
‘Poor Vicky,’ sighed Yashpal. ‘You are now his mother, it is natural he should want you.’
‘I feel tired all the time. My stitches keep hurting. Even lifting such a small baby, I feel the strain,’ responded Sona.
‘It is difficult, I know. But it is our duty not to let the boy suffer more than he has.’
From these pious generalities Sona concluded it was now considered beyond her capacities to soothe Vicky’s sorrow from his heart. Family equations had changed, his welfare was no longer solely her responsibility.
Ajay and Vijay were completely bored by the baby – they did not understand how a cricketer like their cousin could even want to hold her. The only thing she was good for were the presents and sweets given on her behalf when rakhi and bhai duj came along.
Sona began to wish Vicky shared his cousins’ unconcern. ‘He keeps wanting to hold her,’ she complained to her sister, ‘but he is so dirty and sweaty, I don’t like it.’
‘He does a lot for the baby,’ pointed out Rupa, who during her visits had seen how Vicky was used. Bring this or that for baby, watch baby for a while, make sure baby doesn’t fall off the bed, take her out in the pram, bring a hundred things from the fridge, run to the Udipi restaurant and get dosas and idlis, baby is ill, it will be difficult to cook.
‘There he is, dark and ugly, leering like a crow over her, that’s why I try and keep him occupied,’ explained Sona.
Rupa said nothing. Sona went on, ‘With no one to look after him, he is running wild. For hours he disappears into the galli. If only he weren’t so young he could help in the shop.’
A few months of do this and do that and Vicky took to running out of the house and not returning till after dark.
Sona took to thrashing him, her head heavy with rage, using his studies as a further excuse for wielding her mighty chappal. ‘If anything happens, my name will be mud. Where do you roam about all day? Don’t you care about the money spent on your school, failing every year?’ she shouted.
Within anybody’s earshot she complained vociferously. ‘The boy is growing wild. If he turns out like his father, don’t blame me. I have done all I can,’ she would say, virtue trembling through her body.
Vicky, hunched on his bed, pretended to study. Last year the Principal had passed him in tacit recognition of the liberal discounts given him by the cloth shop. His aunts reminded him of this daily.
‘Let him be, bahu,’ observed the grandmother. ‘It is not as though he is going to be a teacher. Your father-in-law also didn’t finish school.’
‘In this day and age society expects you to be high-school pass,’ Sona pointed out righteously. ‘When he fails I am blamed. His uncle thinks I can put brains into his head.’
Vicky hated school, hated studying. The pattern had been set for failure, and he saw no point in struggling against it. When forced to stay inside he roamed restlessly through the four rooms, driving Sona mad. No one else seemed to mind him, but he crept under her skin, irritating her to the point where she wished him dead or at the very least out of the house.
Years in a joint family had given her appropriate communication training and she approached the matter indirectly, when she was serving the men their meals. This was a good and public time and she used it to show how distracted she was by the baby. Things had changed, and it behoved the family to notice.
Lala Banwari Lal did notice. When Sona remarked for the umpteenth time that poor Vicky was performing miserably in school, and it was time his own father showed interest, he decided that some changes in the boy’s routine were necessary.
He knew women could make things difficult. Besides, God had blessed Sona with a second pregnancy, and tranquillity in the house was essential. He knew he had to look after Vicky till he stood on his feet; if those feet could only stand in the shop, so be it. Early in life he would learn you had to work for everything you got. This was not a bad thing for someone in Vicky’s circumstances. His wife concurred.
Vicky would come straight to the shop from school, have lunch, and make himself useful. He would start him with a full day on Sundays and two till five on weekdays.
That Sunday Vicky left the house with the men to start his career. It was the end of July and the lane leading to Ajmal Khan Road was churned with mud wet from yesterday’s rain. The sabzi wallahs sat on either side under awnings of plastic, vegetables arranged on sacking. The vivid pale greens and bright red of cabbages, tomatoes, lauki, tinda, tori shone against the dull pavement. Vicky stepped through the mud carefully in imitation of his grandfather and uncles. Now he was part of the earning section of the family. His status would change: he would be looked up to, and given the respect that was given them. His meagre chest swelled at the thought of his future power. He would show everybody.
Two assistants were already waiting when they arrived. Yashpal took out the key, and motioned one of the boys to open the heavy padlock and crank the shutter up.
Inside, Yashpal and Banwari Lal took off their shoes, and arranged themselves on the white sheet-covered mattresses. Pyare Lal disappeared into the downstairs section, built after his marriage, gesturing Vicky to follow.
If Vicky had any fantasies of unfolding saris at a leisurely pace and draping them around himself to display to customers, he had to get rid of them with each step into the narrow, brightly lit, stuffy basement. He had to stand behind the counter all day, taking out rolls of cloth the assistant gestured to, serving the assistant, not even his uncle. The latter was remote, sitting on a comfortable swivel chair behind a glass-encased cash register, a modern version of the primitive cash box still used upstairs.
‘Vicky – it is your first day here,’ said Pyare Lal after a few hours. ‘Do you want something cold?’
‘There is still the whole day,’ replied Vicky bashfully.
Yashpal slapped him on the back, told him not to be shy and gave him five rupees.
Vicky had never had five rupees to himself before. He fingered the green note, disappeared into the market, but nothing seemed worth the pang of parting with the money. Back in the shop, caressing the note in his pocket, he stood silently next to the entrance, before the pictures of Babaji and the Devi circled with sandalwood garlands. He folded his hands and prayed, may this be the beginning of my fortune.
‘Beta,’ said his grandfather, beaming at him. ‘Believe in the Devi and Babaji. They will always keep your hands full. You must work, work, work, and leave the result to them. I lost everything, but today I have a shop of two floors.’
‘Ji Baoji,’ murmured Vicky.
Six days a week Vicky had his lunch in the shop. Banwari Lal and Yashpal would call him upstairs, move to the corner of the mattress, turn their backs, open up the four containers of their tiffin carrier, spread out the food on little steel plates, and begin to eat quickly, so that Pyare Lal could have his turn soon.
The meal over, Vicky was allowed to lie down behind the counter in the basement. He loved these moments. He dreamed of the day he would be big and earn lots of money. His father would be afraid of him. Maybe he would go back to Bareilly, but only after he accumulated wealth.
His mother had told him many times that he would be a big man some day. To this end she remarked hungrily over every centimetre he grew, and fed him secretly on things that she never fed his father or herself. Growing boy, you are a growing boy, you need to eat well.
In Delhi his tallness, smallness, fatness, thinness gave nobody a minute’s anxiety. Sometimes he heard his aunt remark, how much the boy eats, but this never resulted in more love, or more food. The hollow feeling in his stomach grew as he did. In the shop sometimes they exclaimed indulgently at his appetite, but they took pleasure in feeding him the samosas and kachoris that went with their tea.
Now, with more access to food and attention, he felt this was just the beginning. Money would follow. Lying on the floor in the afternoons, next to the assistant’s feet, hidden by the counter, he saw the writing on the wall.
At home Vicky lorded it over his cousins, making Ajay and Vijay clamour to be taken to the shop. Sona watched this grimly. Now they will know what kind of troublemaker the boy is, they will see he is not to be trusted. She wondered how one child could produce so much evil in the house. The day she saw his face first thing in the morning was bound to be a bad day. Either Nisha would cry a lot, or she herself would get a headache, invariably compounded by irritability in her normally attentive husband on his return home.
Besides which, she had to slave in the kitchen for Vicky, who ate enough for six children. Maybe the birth of the second baby would push that unwanted child back to his proper home. By which time the register of black marks against Vicky would be full.
Raju, Vicky, and Nisha
Five months later Sona delivered her son. That moment on the hospital bed she experienced as the most blessed of her life. The mother of a son, she could join Sushila as a woman who had done her duty to the family, in the way the family understood it. Gone was the disgrace, the resentment, gone with the appearance of little Raju, as dark and plain-featured as his father, but a boy, a boy.
‘Nisha has opened the luck of this family, I tell you,’ exclaimed Rupa. ‘Two children in two years after a decade of drought.’
‘God has rewarded you,’ cried the mother-in-law, clutching the day-old boy to her withered chest. ‘At last the name of his father and grandfather will continue.’
‘What are you talking about, Maji?’ said Rupa, pretending to scold the old woman. ‘When you have enough grandsons upstairs to carry on the family name.’
‘What is that? Both sons should be able to hold their head high, not only one,’ retorted the grandmother. ‘Now the older one has a complete family I can die in peace.’
Sona listened, an IV attached to her wrist, dazed with the pain of her second Caesarean; the complications had been severe. But nothing mattered. She too had produced, produced a baby boy, who at this moment was being positioned against her burgeoning chest. Confidence began its steady journey, pumped into her veins along with the fluids of the drip.
The family was unanimous that Raju should be welcomed in a way suited to the first son of an eldest son. The room that had been filled at Nisha’s birth was now filled with things essential to a little boy, down to cricket bat, ball, and tricycle. There were silver things from which this baby must eat and drink, gold chains to wear around his neck, little gold pendants for his forehead, and small gold bangles for his wrists. Many envelopes of money passed back and forth.
The grandparents gave ten thousand and one rupees, his uncle five thousand and one, his aunt Rupa one thousand and one, family friends, distributors, suppliers, and fellow shopkeepers five hundred and one, more distant connections a hundred and one.