NAVAS (THE VOW)

Literary Trails

Anjolie Ela Menon, “The Birhtday”

Asha Bage

(Translated from Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra)

R

evati had just come home from college when the postman brought Digumama’s letter. She had expected him to reply promptly yet when she saw the postcard, her face fell. Every inch of her inland letter to him was crammed with news. She’d inquired after Mami, their three children, the varkaris who came to Pandharpur every year, even Mama’s poetry. In return she’d received a few terse sentences. He hadn’t answered a single one of her questions, hadn’t even referred to them.Once again, she glanced at the postcard.

Chi. Sau.Chhakubai,

Blessings.Received your letter.Was very happy. The wada is full with varkaris just now. No space to set foot in. If you wish to perform the thread ceremony of your son, come after Kartik Ekadashi or after Purnima preferably.Inform the date, the menu, what pakvan you want, the number of people coming. Arrangements will be made accordingly.

The formal closing Ashirwads etc was general, no names mentioned. Signed Yours Digambar R. Govardhan.

She felt Digumama had  written not to her but to one of the pilgrims. As if there was no difference between her and the varkaris who stayed at his wada every year! The only concession he had made perhaps was in his use of her pet name, Chhakubai. The name evoked memories of  her childhood and the time spent with her grandparents in Pandharpur.

When Shridhar returned a short while later he was surprised.  “Arre, you are home so early? No classes today?’

“Classes were cancelled. Students’ strike.”

“What  for?”

“Do they need a reason? When I heard there were no lectures, I didn’t wait.”

Shridhar fell  silent after that.

Revati’s thoughts turned to her job.  I’ve been teaching in this college for so long, but I feel no satisfaction. Commerce students taking Marathi! How much interest can they have in the subject? I’ve  become indifferent, too, as a result. I  wonder, these days, does  the college, these students, my subject have anything at all to do with me? It has all remained distinct, independent of my existence, not assimilated into my life.. When I wrote to Digumama at Pandharpur about Shreerang’s thread ceremony it was only an excuse. I  thought I could get away for a few days, away from the routine,  see the dry bed of the Chandrabhaga transform into an ocean of people– as Aie had described to me so often. Actually I had made that vow to perform his thread ceremony there so long ago. Shree is past the age of  upanayana now, he’s in college. I could have easily let the vow  remain unfulfilled. I had written that  letter to Digumama  for a specific purpose. How disappointing his reply had been!

The matter of  Shree’s thread ceremony  at Pandharpur  had been discussed often enough and yet when she placed Digumama’s postcard before Medha, Swapna and Shree, it elicited all sorts of reactions.

“Why Pandharpur? Why not some other place?”

“If it has to be done in the presence of the gods, then why not in our puja room?”

“Basically, why have a thread ceremony at all? What happens if one doesn’t? So many communities don’t even have this custom.”

Aie, avoid the dates of the Test match, okay!” Shreerang warned.

Revati was puzzled. Does my vow mean nothing to my family? Does it really mean anything to me? Did I make it on the spur of that moment? Had I felt like it then? Can one explain why one does something  at a given moment, in a particular situation?

There are so many questions, so many doubts in one’s mind. Should one keep questioning everything all the time? Or just accept it? Surely even that which seems irrelevant has some bearing on one’s life; it is woven into the fabric of one’s existence, past or future?

Revati didn’t respond to any of the children’s comments. but her husband Shridhar sensed  she was upset. Before he started to say something to appease her, she burst out angrily.  “There’s no need for everyone to go to Pandharpur. If the father’s presence was not necessary…”

Medha threw her arms around her mother and exclaimed, “Aie!”

Revati shrugged her off.

“You angry, Aie?”

“Of course not! What’s there to be angry about?”

In an attempt to humour her, Medha asked, “They used to call you Chhaku at Ajji’s didn’t they?”

“Only Ajji, Ajoba and this Digumama. Everyone else called me Revati. Ajji-Ajoba didn’t like that name…”

“Why?”

“Becauseit’s the name of a courtesan in Shaunshaya Kallol, a very well known Marathi play.”

“Really?”

“And the associations are also like that,” Revati said, smiling.

“Like what?”

“My father had gone to see the play with Bal Gandharava playing Revati. He had grown old by then and tired, and could barely come on stage. But his voice hadn’t aged. By the time Baba got home it was almost 3 a.m. Aie had gone to the hospital, and I was born at 4.30. Baba decided since I was a girl…”

“But didn’t he explain why he wanted the name?”

“He did, but Ajoba dismissed it with ‘A courtesan!’ Then Baba told him it was also the name of a star…”

“Which of the two names do you prefer, Revati or Chakku?”

“I like both. One because my grandfather gave it to me, the other because my father chose it.”

Aie, Digumama – is he a close relative of yours?”

“No, he’s no relation. He grew up in Ajoba’s house, that’s all. And it is customary to address older men as mama or kaka.”

That night, Swapna asked her, “Aie, why did you make a vow only for Shreerang? Why not for us?”

This time Swapna’s question did not annoy her. “Because I wanted a boy after you two girls.”

“But why did you want a son? What’s wrong with daughters?”

Revati smiled. She had been desperate for a boy then. Now she found it amusing. Sons, daughters, there’s no difference. Viewed like that it shouldn’t matter if her vow remained unfulfilled. She was much more practical now, not so weak in spirit, or touchy.

Her mother often used to say, “You needn’t achieve anything else in life, but you must produce a son. Your own flesh and blood to pour water into your mouth at the final moment. Who knows how one’s last journey will be made – as a helpless lump of flesh or…One’s shame must not be exposed to a stranger’s eyes. A daughter and son-in-law are, after all, outsiders. No matter how large the family circle is, it is the son who must cover one’s naked body.”

Revati recollected her Aie’s words and was stilled. Ideas like Aie’s were nurtured when life was simple, one-dimensional, she thought. Today life was so complicated, so multi-layered, one could not live the way one would like to.  Or die! And yet she couldn’t put her unfulfilled vow, and the visit to Pandharpur, out of her mind.

*****

A

t 11.30 pm, the rickshaw stopped outside Digumama’s house in Haridas galli. It was bitterly cold. Even the full-sleeved sweater and shawl couldn’t keep the chill out. Revati looked up and down the pitch dark lane. None of the old familiar landmarks were visible except Digumama’s house which had preserved its appearance. While Shree and Shridhar took the luggage out of the rickshaw, Revati  went to the door and rattled the latch. The well-remembered stench from the latrine next door wafted across. Instinctively, she covered her nose. She heard someone moving inside, switching on a light and a coarse, gravelly voice calling  out, “Coming, coming!” The door opened. In the doorway stood Digumama, with his cough, his constant companion, his bulk not concealed by his height.

“Who is it? Chhakubai?”

His words instantly dispelled the dryness of the postcard’s tone.

Digumama quickly went forward to take the bags from Shridhar, and Shree promptly gave them to him. Revati didn’t approve of it at all, “Let him carry the bags, Mama…” she said. But before she could finish, he’d taken them inside.

When she bent down to touch his feet, Mama said, “Wait, let me wake your Mami up. She sleeps very soundly, you know.”

“Let her sleep,” Revati said, but he went in all the same.

Both Shridhar and Shree merely joined their hands and said “Namaskar.”  It was on the tip of her tongue to tell them, “Arre, bend down, naa,” but she held back. When they were inside, she whispered to Shree, “Touch Mami’s feet.” But his jeans were too tight!

“Why did you take the night train, Revati, especially, when it is so cold?” Mami asked. Only Mami addressed her as Revati. Revati, too, had begun to wish they hadn’t arrived so late. It was several days after the full moon  and they hadn’t been able to see anything on their way home from the station.

“You haven’t eaten dinner, I’m sure,” said Mami.

“We have, in the train.”

“A little pithla and bhath?”

“No. Just some warm milk if you have…”

“Of course. Shall I put some sugar in it?”

“All right.”

Something caught Revati’s eye inside the room. On Mami’s bed was curled up a five-six  year old child. Hearing voices, he sat up.

“Who is this, Mami?”

“Bhaskar’s son Amit. Lives with us.”

“Hmm.., I’d heard Bhaskar’s wife had passed away much later. I wanted to write, but…” Revati couldn’t find a suitable excuse.

“It wouldn’t have mattered to Bhaskar, anyway. He was all set to go to America. He stayed back only because she was critical. Now he’s settled there, permanently, married too,” Digumama told her. Like his letter, this information was also conveyed in a dry, unemotional manner. Revati’s gaze drifted to Bhaskar’s little boy. Such a big responsibility for Mami, at this age…

“The wada is still full of varkaris. Will you sleep here tonight? We’ll see about a room for you tomorrow,” Mama said,

“It’s all right, Mama. We’re here for just one night.”

“But our son-in-law might require a separate room…”

“Have the reservations been made for tomorrow’s bus?” Shridhar asked, ignoring the previous remark.

“Yes, we’ll collect the tickets in the morning.”

Although Digumama had been informed that they had planned to return the next day, Revati didn’t think it was proper for Shridhar to mention it now, when they had just arrived..

Shridhar  and Shree went to bed.  Mama had placed three cots with mattresses and clean sheets, in the small courtyard. “Do you need a blanket or just a quilt will do?’ he asked.

“No. No blanket.” Revati was reminded of her Ajoba. He had used only a quilt.

As she was getting into bed, Mama began, “All the arrangements have been made, Chhakubai. The muhurta is at eight. It’s a good time. There is another later in the day, but not as auspicious.”

“Eight is fine, Mama.”

“You’ll have to get up early…”

“We will…”

“What special pakvan do you want made as offering?”

“Well, there’s usually  puranpoli, so that is a must. Besides that, just sugar with the meal will do.”

Wah, Chhakubai! You come all the way here to perform the thread ceremony of your son and then try to save money? Don’t worry. The lunch will be from my side,” Mama said in his typical matter-of-fact manner.

Revati felt like laughing. She had suggested sugar because she didn’t want to trouble Mami. Actually Revati had wanted only the basic religious ceremony to be performed – none of the trappings or rituals. She had clearly mentioned that  in her letter to Digumama.

“You want the ceremony in the temple or…?”

“Inside the temple, Mama, in Panduranga’s presence.”

“In that case you will have to pay Rs 51 more. Otherwise the total expense would be about Rs 200.”

Only Rs 251? The new pant-shirt she had bought for Shridhar, to be given to him after the ceremony, had cost more than 800 rupees.Such an unnecessary formality.Mama’s questions continued.  “The ritual bath – at home or down at the river?”

“I’m definitely going down to the Chandrabhaga. Shridhar and Shree will bathe at home.”

“Well, the mangalashtakas and the main ceremony will be at the temple. The  rituals before that will be at home. Everyone will have to bathe early. Then whoever wishes to go to the river can do so on the way to the temple. Normally, once the daivak, the Gods, are formally invited to the ceremony you are not supposed to go out. But we’ll overlook that.”

Revati’s eyelids were drooping. Shridhar and Shree were fast asleep. She lay down on the floor beside  Mami, Mama and Bhaskar’s little boy and closed her eyes.

Just as she was drifting off, Mama’s voice broke in once more, “What about his hair? Will he agree to have it shaved off?”

“No, Mama. Just a token snip,” her voice thick with sleep.

“That means, the barber loses his income for one day, Chhakubai. I had booked him in advance…He needs the money, you know.”

Mama seemed quite unconcerned that it was very late and everyone was asleep. She forced herself to ask, “How much is he to be paid?”

“A complete shave is five rupees.  Since it’s only one lock, we can give him two. ”

Give him five, but let me sleep, she wanted to say.

“The shehnaiwalla…” Revati pretended to be asleep. Mama muttered to himself, “Fallen asleep, it seems. Hmm…better sleep.Have to get up early.”

Revatismiled at his remark.

****

W

hen Mami woke Revati up it was still dark. “Tea’s ready. Also hot water for your bath.”

Revati hadn’t slept well at all. The little boy had had a severe earache and through the night she had heard Mama and Mami bustling about, attending to him. Tempted as she was to get up and help, she didn’t. Just as she was dropping off,Mama had a coughing fit. And an old woman in the next room was groaning loudly. Before Revati knew it, the night had gone.

“Let me sleep a little longer, Mami,” she pleaded. “It’s not day yet.”

“It’s four o’clock!” Mami retorted.

Revati noticed that that Mami was bathed and ready. Hadn’t she slept at all? “Shall I wake up the others?” she asked.

“No. Let the men sleep. They need it. After you are ready, then call them.”

Revati was amused. Men need sleep, women don’t? Mami gave her a cup of tea. Revati remained huddled by the fire even after she’d finished drinking it.

Although they had a gas stove, they always used a wood fire in the winter. The firelight played on Mami’s face. Mami was younger than Revati’s mother, but her hair was all white. She wasn’t stocky like Mama. Her hands were thin and bony and the veins stood out sharply. The combined fragrance of  warm bath, soap and wood smoke that exuded from her jolted Revati awake.

“Has sleep flown away from your eyes?” Mami asked.

Revati just smiled.

“This particular hour is very deceptive, you know,”Mami said.

“Deceptive?”

“You think it’s still night, but imperceptibly, day is creeping in. I’ve been fooled so often…Your Mama has a poem, Revati.

It is a deep dark night

From somewhere a light appears

To illuminate the twilight

Comes a beloved friend.

Revati glanced up at Mami. There was so much more warmth  in her, so much sensitivity. Who could have taught this illiterate woman all this? Mama? Or had she picked it up herself? Digumama’s verse was like himself, awkward and clumsy. Nothing delicate or subtle about it. Yet the words rang true.

By the time Revati finished bathing, night had turned to day. Mama, the varkaris, everybody was up. Sounds of teeth being cleaned, bodies being washed, suggested a flurry of activity. The maid was sweeping and swabbing in the rooms. The courtyard had been sprinkled with water and Mami had made a fully bloomed eight petalled lotus rangoli on it. A deep sense of contentment washed over Revati. The fatigue of the journey, the sleepless night vanished. She wasn’t even annoyed because Shridhar and Shri were still asleep!

When the priest from the temple arrived, Revati asked in surprise, “Why the bhatji, Mama? You normally officiate yourself…”

“That’s different. Today I’m performing the ceremony, not conducting it.”

Revati smiled. Mama was all dressed up for the occasion. He wore a brand new dhotarand  uparna, thrown over the same old dusty jacket and shirt and the inevitable topi. As if it was his own grandson’s thread ceremony!

When Shridhar sat down, Mama asked, “No new dhotar for the son-in-law? At least a silk shirt piece?”

Revati was embarrassed. She’d clean forgotten that the family presented gifts to the boy and his parents! She’d bought new clothes for Shridhar and packed Shree’s churidar pyjama and Bengali kurta, but it was not what Mama was asking her about! She looked embarrassed and a little annoyed.

“Never mind, never mind,” consoled Mama. “Let your Mamiperform the initial formality of giving them their gifts.”

Mami came forward carrying a tray with a sari, blouse piece, a dhotar and eleven rupees on it.

Mami, what’s all this? I told you, no unnecessary formalities …” Revati said, flustered.

To which Mama retorted in his abrupt fashion, “You want to perform your son’s thread ceremony, Chhakubai, without anyone – neither the boy’s sisters, uncles or aunts, grandparents, friends? Besides, three is not a good number.  When I saw you, Shridhar and Shree yesterday, I had to pick up a pebble to make up the fourth!”Mama’s voice rose.

Revati stared at him in baffled silence.  Mami whispered, “Enough!”

As the priest started, “Keshavayanamah!” the shehnai player arrived.

I said I didn’t want him, Revati grumbled under her breath.

“Your services will not be required today,” Mama told the musician almost ruefully. The man stayed where he was.

Revati, a puja shouldn’t be performed in silence,” Mami said to her. “You won’t have to pay him much. He is given a retainership in the wada. If you like you can give him a fiver.” Mami hadn’t actually accused her of being stingy as Mama had done, but she’d implied it all the same.

“I have my cassette player and a Bismillah Khan cassette. I’ll switch that on,” Revati said and went to fetch it. The priest paused while the tape started. But Mama was muttering, “Once the puja has  begun, you shouldn’t get up Chhakubai.”

Shridhar held his little transistor to his ear with his left hand and followed the priest’s instructions with the right.

“What’s this? Put the radio down at least today,” Revati snapped at him.

“Just the news headlines,” Shridhar’s voice was loud and clear.

“Very well. We’ll begin after the news,” Mama acquiesced.

The priest fell silent once more. By that time Revati was really angry. We’ve agreed  to go through only the essentials, but can’t they do even those, wholeheartedly? These mantras, they acquire a special significance on the occasion. They have a flavor, a fragrance – like agarbattis during a festive meal.

For the matrubhojan, Digumama had lined up several eight-nine year old boys, just the right age for this ceremony. Among them, Shree seemed like a hulk.

“Come, Chhakubai, sit down with your son. Feed him, this last time. From now on, he is a twice born Brahmin, an adult. He will become independent. Childhood is behind him after this ceremony,” Digumama explained. The words brought a lump to Revati’s throat. She was reminded of what her mother used to say –As long as we are alive, you will always remain children.

At that instant, the shehnai ended and Shree’s pop music came on. Quickly, Revati switched off the cassette player.

They were to go to the temple, via the river. Since there were a few minutes for them to leave Mami made tea for everyone. The shehnai player and the barber were waiting for it.

During this time Mama had made a trip to the vegetable market on his cycle, for vegetables and other things that Mami required. Why should he be riding a cycle at this age, Revati wondered. Why couldn’t he send someone on these errands?

It was bitterly cold as they walked to the temple barefoot. On the way, Mami made Revati stop at a bangle seller. She took off her watch and gave it to Shridhar. But the gold bangles on her right wrist wouldn’t come off. So the bangle seller slid the glass bangles in front of them. They looked odd  like  that.

“Actually, you should have done this before the puja at home,” Mami said.

Shridhar and Shree were reluctant to get into the water. Even Mama felt that they could give it a miss since they’d already bathed, but Revati was determined. The surface of the river was still. Slanting rays of  the mild morning sun played on the water. The sand was cold underfoot. Here and there, a few people were bathing, washing clothes. Cattle were being herded across. The place was quite filthy.

To Revati, the sand, the river, the atmosphere, everything seemed uninspiring, devoid of any emotion. This wasn’t the Chandrabhaga she’d carried in her mind all these years. Where were the flags, those symbols of the Vaishnavas, the devotees? The ocean of pilgrims? The sound of taal and mridanga. And what had happened to Ajoba’s Pandharpur house?  In the harsh light of day, the town of Pandharpur sprawling along the Chandrabhaga appeared grim, soulless. The blurred impression of the previous might was much better, she thought. Yes, she had experienced the old Pandharpur in the predawn light, in the warmth of Digumama’s kitchen fire, in the hot bath water. But here, at this moment, everything, the thread ceremony, without the attendant rituals, seemed meaningless. Why had I insisted on coming? Why did I ever make that vow, she wondered as a strange unease gripped her.

She stepped into the water wrapped in an old sari. Immediately Shridhar called a warning, “The water’s very cold. You’ll catch a chill.” She ignored him and went in. She could swim. She shivered as the cold water stung her. But very quickly she got used to it. It was so comforting!

There wasn’t much water in the river in this season. She swam to the other bank and came back. Shridhar was getting impatient. As usual.

Mama reminded her. “The muhurta is at eight, Chhakubai.” She was about to get out when Mama stopped her, summoned Shridhar and Shree. “Come both of you. The water isn’t deep here.” Neither of the two men moved. “It’s all right if you don’t want to take a dip. Just wet your feet and you’ll obtain the same sort of blessing, punya.We  have shortcuts, you know!”Mama joked.

Revati shuddered. The word ‘shortcut’ was as incongruous as the pop music that had followed Bismillah Khan’s shehnai earlier. At Mama’s behest, Shridhar and Shree rolled up their trousers and waded in, barely getting their feet wet.

“Face the east,” Mama ordered and both of them turned into a broad shaft of light that pierced the river.  Blinking in the glare, they looked at Mama. “Good. Now Shree,  say Chandrabhaga teerthe aham snaan akarish yami I bathe in the waters of the Chandrabhaga.  Cup your hands together, fill them with water, then let it trickle back into the river. Touch your eyes with your wet palms.”

They did as directed. Then, Mama with his eyes closed, chanted the invocation to the Ganga, Namaami, Gange, tavapaad apan kajam! Surasurairv andhitam divyarupam, Bhuktincha, muktincha tada sunityam, Bhavanusar aneta danaranaam, as if in a trance. His flat deep voice sounded almost mellow. Revati broke out in goose pimples. Even after he’d finished, she stood motionless, her face turned to the sun.

A long line of devotees snaked its way through the sixteen pillared mantap, into the sanctum.“These pillars represent the sixteen sanskaras, the purificatory rites, Chhakubai,” Mama explained.

“Will the ceremony be performed right next to the deity?” she asked.

“No. It is not allowed.”

“Why? Suppose a devotee wants to?”

“Even then,” Mama patiently replied. “A ceremony can only be performed in the sabhamantap.”

“But I’d hoped we could go right up to the Vithoba murti. You can’t even see Vithoba from here. Can’t we have a darshan first?”

“We’ll go for the blessing, the ashirwad later.”

Revati looked around distractedly. Was this the same temple or had it changed? Why did everything look so different? Why couldn’t she spot anything familiar?

Father and son stood in front of the priest. Shree’s expression reflected the extreme reluctance with which he had donned the dhotar.

“Chhakubai, here, hold this kalash,” Mama handed her a pot of water with a coconut on it. “This is the sister’s job,” he remarked. Revati took the kalash silently.

My role has changed now. I am Shree’s sister. I am becoming everything that Mama is making me. After the matrubhojan, my son will go away from me. I must launch him into the world, set him free to test his wings. Then my relationship with him, too, will change. He will become a friend, brother, sister…Every context demands its own particular relationship. Is that why a sister is needed on this occasion?

When she came out of her reverie, Digumama had started on the mangalashtaka, obviously his own composition, invoking the blessings of the lord on the boy-man/ man-child:

Jyastambhas karuni saaksh, janata bhakti madhe naachali (Those pillars which bear witness to them, the people dance in devotion)

Jyanchi pavana paooley pari sare yani tya nadaavali (their feet ever  blessed by this holy ground)

Bhaktiche sur je sur elaghumale, yaman dir abhyantari(The sounds of faith that revereberate in these precincts)

Tesaare, Prabhu Vitthala, thuj ha savey kuryat bator mangalam!(all of it is in your honour, lord Vitthala)

Through these words images of the temple and the varkaris swam before Revati’s eyes as they filled with tears. Shridhar and Shree stood beside her, unmoved.

The cloth antarpat held between father and son was dropped. The ceremony was over. The position Digumama enjoyed  in the temple town  had allowed them to circumvent the queue and they went right into the sanctumfor darshan. The line of varkaris behind them inched forward slowly and the temple echoing the intensely emotional chants of the devotees.‘Pundalika Varada Hari Vitthala.’  Most of them were in total  surrender to their Panduranaga Vitthala, their footfalls like the rhythmic and regular beats of a mridanga.

We too should have been among them,  Revati felt. There must be a particular path one had to follow to reach Panduranga, every experience taking one closer. This line, is it a chain, each  one’s experiences forming a link? Moving ahead slowly, one step at a time, must have its own charm, a special satisfaction, she thought.

Before she knew it, Revati found herself in front of the murti. As she gazed at the gleaming black-stone Vitthal, she felt a powerful surge of emotion.  As if she was  drowning in her unshed tears.

The Pandharpur of the sandy waste, the filth, the indifference she had witnessed earlier, vanished. In its place stood Aji-Ajoba’s Pandharpur, the town of her childhood, with the sea of humanity on the banks of the Chandrabhaga swaying to the beat of the taal and the mridanga, pennants  fluttering in the clean morning air, and presiding over it all, their beloved life-long friend, Vithoba, standing on the  brick, hands on hips. Without their knowledge he had accompanied them on their journey. Here they would part company and go back alone. Revati was overcome.

“Move on, move ahead. People are waiting,” Mama urged.

Her feet had turned to lead. Shridhar, Shree, the thread ceremony, all the events arranged in neat little compartments, drifted into her thoughts.

What came over me just now? How did I lose my grip on myself, my life, my relationships? I was completely carried away. Did I remember to do a namaskar? Touch his feet and ask for his blessing? Did Shridhar and Shree even do a proper namaskar? For that one moment all these things had become irrelevant.

Revati came out.

“Someone has taken permission to do a milk abhishekha later on. Do you want to see it?” Mama asked her. Revati shook her head.

Mama led them to Vithoba’s consort, Rakhumayi’s mandir. But Revati’s heart was elsewhere. Mechanically, she did what Mama told her to.

Soon after they reached home,Mami started the cooking. Mama divested himself of his ceremonial dress and put on the usual dhotar. Again he rode off to the market on his bicycle. This time Revati scolded him, “Why all this cycling around at this age, Mama?”

“What do you mean at this age?”he retorted.

He thinks he’s still young!Revati smiled.

Shridhar was reading the paper, Shree listening to the radio. Revati went in to see what Mami was doing. She  was getting the chana dal and jaggery filling for the puran polis.

“Our son-in-law doesn’t mind jaggery in the puran, does he?” she asked apprehensively.Of course he minded. Shridhar’s family always made puran with sugar. And Revati, too, had forgotten the taste of jaggery polis! But she reassured Mami, “It doesn’t matter, Mami. You really shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble…”

“It’s no trouble,” Mami interrupted. “You are only an excuse. Nobody comes these days, so only when people like you turn up, I make them.”

“What about Padmakar? He’s right here in Pune, isn’t he?”

“Yes, but he has cut himself off from us. Bhaskar in America or Padmakar in Pune –both  are equally far away,” Mami sighed.

Mama came in just then. He had heard the last few words.  “Padmakar has severed all ties with us,” he snapped. “If we die tomorrow, he won’t even observe the sutaka, the mourning period for us, I know.”

“What kind of shameful talk is this?”Mami scolded.

“As for Manohar, he is carried away by the Sangha. They want to bring together all Hindus, they say. Sure, go ahead. But we, his parents – aren’t we Hindus? She believes he’ll come in time to pour Ganga water into her mouth. If he comes in time to immerse our ashes, I’ll be grateful. I have often told your Mami, Chhakubai, whichever one of us is left behind…”

“That’s enough. Think of the occasion, the time, before you utter such inauspicious words. What will Revati feel?”

Gradually Digumama calmed down. Then he left the room. Mami started to grind the puran. Every now and then, she dabbed her eyes with her sari. Avoided Revati’s eyes.

I came here to fulfil the vow I took because I wanted a son. Mami has three sons, but it’s as good as not having any. What strange bond has brought me here, linked my life with theirs?  Revati wondered.

Mami began to blow into the fire to make the wood burn properly.

“Shall I do something, help you, Mami?”

“No, it’s your son’s thread ceremony. Besides the food has to be offered as naivedya, so only I must touch it. You go and rest.”

“Why don’t you use the gas, Mami?”

“This kind of food tastes much better cooked on wood,” Mami explained.

Revati went outside. The varkaris too were preparing lunch and the wada was filled with smoke. She was feeling very restless.

Every year, the varkaris come, finish their pilgrimage and go away. Like them, we too are here. I had to fulfil my vow so I thought of Digumama. He isn’t a relative of ours. We don’t keep in touch. Once I go back, I’ll probably send him a postcard, that’s all. What is it that connects the lives of this old couple with the lives of countless varkaris? What is it that made me involve them in the fulfilment of my vow? What was that momentary emotion I experienced in Vithoba’s presence, when I seemed to be completely lost? It has gone now. Will I be as casual as Shridhar and Shri if I go to the mandir again? Why? Revati was confused.

She was glad when Mama announced  that lunch was ready. The meal made her drowsy. When she awoke much later, she found that Mami hadn’t eaten yet.

Mami, your lunch?” she asked with concern.

“My guests haven’t had their food yet,” she smiled.

Revati looked around. The maidservant, the old woman who was groaning through the night, the shehnaiwala, the barber, and a few others were sitting in a row, waiting to be served.

“Revati, is it time to leave? Shall I make tea?” Mami asked.

“No, Mami, you finish your lunch first.”

Shridhar and Shree were putting their things together. Revati suddenly felt that she didn’t want to go back. Back to the same routine – college, disinterested students, the house, children, Shridhar – each one to his own world, nothing holding them together – all moving in concentric circles, not even touching.

Mama looked up from his accounts as she went up to him. “Is it already time to leave?”

“No. Not yet…” She wanted to say something, to talk to him. “Don’t you write down your poems, Mama?”

“I used to. Now I don’t compose so often. Occasionally, I scribble a few lines in the ledger. I made up the mangalashtaka for your son after so long…That’s all my poetry is!”

Poetry in account books? “But they were beautiful, Mama,” she said. She ought to have told him earlier.

Mama beamed with pleasure. As she rose to leave, he said, “Wait, Chhakubai. Just go over the accounts.”

“What accounts, Mama?”

“The expenses for the ceremony, the two hundred and fifty one rupees…”

Revati was taken aback. “Are we like the other varkaris, Mama, that you have to settle our accounts?” she asked sharply.

“We are all varkaris, my child! But one must be very clear about money matters. You shouldn’t ever feel,Mama overcharged me for this…”

Mama was the limit, fumed Revati inwardly. She ignored the notebook he held out. So he began to read them out. He had included everything – five rupees each to the shehnaiwala and the barber, flowers, garlands, coconuts, paansupaari. But not the gifts he and Mami had given them, the food, her glass bangles. That was from him.

Revati didn’t know what to say.

“So, Chhakubai, was everything to your satisfaction?” he asked.

“Why shouldn’t it be?” she shot back, taking hold of herself.

“It was a very simple ceremony without any frills, just as you’d requested. But then, we gave up all the trappings long ago. One leaves one’s footwear outside before entering a temple. But to get to His feet one has to tread the path of empty ritual, isn’t it? Isn’t that how we’ve all reached here?”

Revati stood there staring at Mama, nonplussed.

It was time to leave. The varkaris, too, had vacated their rooms. The maid began preparing them for the next lot of pilgrims. Digumama rushed off to fetch a rickshaw. This is exactly how I used to feel each time I was leaving Ajoba’s house, thought Revati, her heart heavy.

She had left an envelope with some money – enough to cover the cost of the gifts. She’d put all three names on it – Mama, Mamiand Bhaskar’s little boy. She hadn’t dared to give it to Mama. What if he refused? Taken offence? Wouldn’t it have been much better to have bought Mama a nice sweater, instead of giving them money like this? A warm, full sleeved high necked sweater…

The rickshaw arrived. Sridhar, Shree bent down to do namaskar. “Come again,” Mama blessed them.

“Sure,” said Shridhar, confident he never would.

Though they dissuaded him, seventy-year-old Digumama insisted on following them on his cycle. Slowly…slowly, wearing the same shabby old sweater.

It was six in the evening. That same half-light that had deceived Mami, lay around them. At dawn, darkness dissolved into light, at dusk, day faded into night. Gradually.

There can be no sunset in Mama’s life, Revati thought. It can only be this sandhiprakash, twilight. And in that half-light everything became crystal clear to her…

The varkaris, their sojourn in the wada, are inextricably woven into Mama- Mami’s lives. My vow, our coming here for the thread ceremony, that moment of bliss in Vithal’s presence, when all bonds, frames, contexts disappeared, all outlines blurred, they are all threaded into my existence too. Who has drawn them in? I don’t know. Why? I cannot say. Perhaps I won’t feel the same if I come again. But the experience, while it lasted, was real. And relevant. It made things fall into place for me, became a part of me. Intensely personal like my name. Revati, the name Baba gave me. Was this ceremony then, just the excuse, the cause, for my experience? Or an effect?

Shridhar and Shree got off the rickshaw and picked up their luggage, but Revati remained seated.

“Come on, get up. Our bus is waiting,” Shridhar prodded.

Digumama’s cycle was nowhere in sight. Had he left them behind? Or had he gone ahead?

Calmly Revati alighted. Shridhar had gone ahead with the luggage.


Notes 

--This translation © Keerti Ramachandra.
--Painting by Anjolie Ela Menon, “The Birthday” Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

--Every year at the beginning of the month of Ashadh, (around June-July) thousands of pilgrims from all walks of life congregate at Dehuand Pune.What brings them together is their devotion to and faith in Vitthala, the presiding deity of Pandharpur, a small town in the Sholapur district of Maharashtra. As they cover the distance of around 250 kms  carryingpalkhis / palanquins, they sing bhajans composed by the saint poets like Eknath, Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, in praise of their patron deity, Vitthala or lovingly addressed as Vithoba, believed to be an avatar of Krishna.  Through the eleven days of their journey, they are offered food, shelter, medical facilities, at no cost, by the people of the villages and towns they pass through. They reach the temple on Ashadi Ekadashi to participate in a mahapuja at 3.00 am after which they wend their way back home, alone!
The varkari sampradaya believes in humanity for all and rejects discrimination based on caste or wealth.
Mangalashtaka is a blessing in verse composed by either a family member or friend and sung to a standard tune at  awedding or upanayana ceremony. 
Bal Gandharv, a much loved and respected actor-singer of the Marathi stage only played the role of women characters since women did not come on stage those days.

Some Marathi words explained:
Aie: mother
Mama Mother’s brother
Mami His wife
Matrubhojan: a ritual where the mother feeds her son for the last time before he embarks on his life as a student.
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Asha Bage is a Marathi short story writer and novelist. Her novel on the tsunami, Bhoomi, won the Sahitya Akademi award  in 2006. Asha Bage’s stories reflect the anguish, dilemma, bewilderment of people who see the old order slipping away, and are not yet prepared to accept the new one which seems so far removed from everything they knew. But there is a moment of epiphany and most of her stories end on a positive note. Asha Bage is a connoisseur of Hidustani classical music and it has a definitive influence on her work.
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Keerthi RamchandraKeerti Ramachandra is a multi-linguist based in Bangalore. She has translated short fiction from Marathi, Kannada and Hindi. Many of the stories have appeared in magazines, journals, and anthologies. Her major translated works are: Vishwas Patil's A Dirge for the Dammed (shortlisted for the Raymond Crossword award in 2015) and Mahanayak (from Marathi),  A faceless Evening and other stories, a collection of Gangadhar Gadgil's short stories also from Marathi, The Dying Sun and other stories by Joginder Paul  with Usha Nagpal.( from Hindi ) and U R Ananthamurthy's Hindutva or Hind Swaraj with Vivek Shanbhag (from Kannada).
Another Chance, a collection of six short stories and a novella by Saniya and Atmakatha, the autobiography of Madhu Limaye are with the publishers.
In the pipeline are a collection of Bolwar Mahamad Kunhi's Kannada stories, a collection of Vijaya Rajadhyaksha's Marathi stories and an autobiography in Hindi.
Read her translation of Joginder Paul’s short story, "Thirst of Rivers” here.

 

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