Seeing a pedestrian standing in front of the garage, the children stopped playing and stood up. For some time, they stared at the crude dress of the traveler. Repelled, Nannu called.
Munnu called. Ma!
The goat's kids slipped away from their grip, hopped about and called their mother.
Kishanlal smiled silently.
Nannu and Munnu spoke together.
Our father is not here. Our mother is there. There, she is sitting.
The kids kneeling near their mother's udder, lifted their faces and searched for her breasts. Sushama stood up in the garage. Pulling her sari over her head up to the eyelids she asked.
Nannu, who is that?
Nannu and Munnu answered together.
Ma, a Musafir2.
Sister, this is me, Kishanlal. Madhu calls me Kishan.
Madhu Chaturvedi. Just now, the person who came out of this emarath3 and went away riding the bicycle told me that you know. The invalid milk man also said that it is enough to ask you. Sister, you know Madhu? Madhu who works in the Graphic Arts-
Sushama did not lift up her face. As if to the concrete floor of the garage, she asked.
To see Devi? From the village? What is your relation to her?
Should he say husband?
His lips closed and suddenly twisted.
He is just a pedestrian. Even the children announced him as a pedestrian.
See, what you see over there is Devi's flat. On top, on the right corner, Type three, four hundred and twenty.
Kishanlal did not move. He did not understand type three and flat. He knows four hundred and twenty. Oh my God! Is this a trick? Char sow beese4! He stood perplexed. Wings - spread out for flying to the emaraths standing in a row like cardboard boxes - burned, he became helpless.
Perhaps understanding his thoughts, Sushama stepped out from the garage. Like a bird knowing her nest she flew. The flying bird said.
Come, you may come with me.
In the middle of the building, climbing the steps, Sushama waited for Kishanlal in the loft of the staircase. She started climbing the steps again when he reached her. Again reaching a loft, Kishanlal stood panting. Turning right through the loft, again turning right, he climbed the steps once again. Is this a trap? Char sow beese4! Who is playing all these tricks against him? He is a rat. The rat got caught in a trap laid by some trickster. The rat started running hither and thither. Or a bird seizes a rat in its claws and flies. The rat is suffocated. The sharp curved nails of the bird lowers in to the rat's chest. Kishanlal did not see the bird. The bird is flying above. Above, on the right side, char sow beese.
Climbing many steps, Kishanlal waited in the loft. He saw two doors opening to the loft. Both are closed. Which one will open? Which is char sow beese?
He forgot the left and right. He got confused.
Where did the lady who brought him disappear?
He stood in the same pose for a long time. For ages, he is standing in the same loft. Standing on and on, he felt thirsty. Lips contracted, mouth dried up, he was laying waiting for a drop of water. Mother went to the kitchen to bring boiled and cooled barley water. Mother, I want a piece of sugar candy too. Even after laying waiting for long, mother did not bring water. Perhaps mother is digging a well to bring water. He lay listening. There is no sound or smell anywhere. Kitchen was somewhere, far away. Perhaps this is not his home. Then he was afraid to open his eyes or look once. There was fire in his eyes. His entire body was on fire. There were no eyes, hands, legs or body. Everything was blazing fire. In the burning fire he remained as only memories. In his memories, chains of days and nights contracted and expanded, playing their tunes. Since when did days and nights start playing harmonium? Now, digging a well, mother must have drawn water. But mother does not come. Mother must have gone to the field to plant sugarcane. On the stems the buds sprouting, on the buds the leaves blooming, the green ocean of sugarcane leaves dancing in the wind, the sugarcane matured, it is cut and processed in the mill, and boiling the sweet juice in copper vessels, mother must be preparing the sugar candy. Mother, a drop of water and a piece of sugar candy.
Those days he was suffering from pneumonia. When he got fed up seeing days and nights and the changing seasons in moments, mother brought only plain water. How many lives he had lived, since mother went for water?
Suddenly something flashed in his eyes. Did the dusk's face flash? When he winked, there was no light. Like his heart beating in his chest, the milky moonlight once again spread on the loft. Above the closed door, he saw blue light in a long glass tube. The flushed blue light again became dim, but the light did not extinguish completely. As longings, as his heart beating in the chest, lighting up once, going off once, again lighting and again going off, the blue light bloomed.
The door opened widely.
He winked and his lips longed to smile. Standing, he was all sweating. He was all excited. He was all out of breath. His heart filling his chest, his heart expanding in his chest, it is splitting now, getting squeezed, uprooted, he is becoming weak. He cannot stand any more. He stood trembling. His hands trembled and his fingers weakened on the carrybag.
Madhu stood filling up the door.
Madhu stood immersed in the blue light.
His eyes filled with tears. His lips trembled to say something.
Madhu, this is me, your Kishan.
Madhu, you forgot me?
Kishanlal did not utter a single letter. His lips silently longed to cry.
A widow at the door.
Not Madhu, not his bride.
Without the tilak on her forehead, without the sindoor, as a widow.
Madhu Chaturvedi stood at the door like a blazing flame of fire. Kishanlal cooled down all over. As snow, as winter, as a statue of snow in winter, Kishanlal stood, stunned.
Madhu Chaturvedi asked.
Why did you take so much trouble to come here?
The question was raw. Any grandmother welcomes the unwanted guest who arrives at home. Kyom ithna takleef udhaya7? She should not have asked that question. She abandoned the village long time back. When she was living and studying at the first convent school itself, she practiced to forget such colloquial usages. Now Madhu Chaturvedi will not return to the village. She has wiped away all such traditions. Who you? She should have asked liked that, who are you? You simpleton, who are you? hut8. Get out. Only the colloquial usage! Hut hut ja9, beemar kahim ka10. She knows to ask and say. She has learned everything. Even then she asked, completely in colloquial tongue, quite raw, why did you take so much trouble to come here?
Madhu was stunned hearing her own voice. In a second, she regained herself completely. Madhu Chaturvedi asked:
Why did you come here?
Not enough. She was not satisfied. Perhaps he came losing his way. As an accumulation of phlegm comes up, in her question, the hatred and disgust within her mind did not surface. Is she getting defeated? Is Madhu Chaturvedi losing herself in front of a disgusting man?
Again for a third time she asked.
You came enquiring after whom?
Her face flushed. The flushed face became all reddish and blazed in his eyes. He became a handful of ashes and finally became nothing.
Then his ears whistled. In his ears the sound of bells reverberated. In his chest, a holy fire burned. Incense sticks smoked.
He was a small child. In the wet sand bank, he buried a silver coin. His mother was bathing in the river. He sat on the sand bank, waiting for the silver seed of the coin to sprout, become a plant and grow up as a tree. To collect the silver coin fruits shed by the tree, he saved a small pouch. Every day, he accompanied his mother to the river bed to check the silverseed sprouting. But he had forgotten. Afterwards, he never could find out where in the wet sand bank he had buried the silver coin.
He was a small child.
He told his mother the secret of the silver coin. To retrieve the silver coin from the sand bank he had dug up the wet sand in vain. Then his mother said:
Your coin will sprout in the next birth.
His fingers hurt, digging up the wet sand.
His fingers tired, fingers trembled, fingers frozen, the carrybag slipped down to the floor.
Madhu Chaturvedi said.
Anyway it is nice you have come. Now you can go. The carrybag has fallen on the floor. You may take it.
She shook once in the standing pose. Perhaps to shut the door in front of him. Her body filled up in his eyes. Kishanlal did not understand whether it was her cheeks, her neck, or her chest that filled up his eyes.
Or don't go today. May be no more bus today. But where will you stay?
Turning inside, Madhu Chaturvedi called.
Sushama was in the kitchen. When she showed up her face in the corner of the kitchen wall with a ladle in her hand, Madhu Chaturvedi said.
This gentleman is not going today.
The word fell from her mouth. A lightning ran across Madhu's eyes. Sushama may not have seen that. I said 'gentleman'. Surely I am shaken. Will Sushama come to know that this villager is my somebody, that once up on a time, with or without my knowledge, my marriage has taken place?
Madhu Chaturvedi corrected herself.
Sushama, this person is not leaving today. Today he will stay here. Prasad's cot is vacant in the garage.
Sushama was stunned as though her fingers were burned. She opened her mouth to cry, as a dumb person. She stood listening to Devi's commands, rubbing the burned finger on the handle of the ladle.
If you require, you may take a bedsheet and a pillow from here. Sushama should arrange whatever that is required for his convenience such as taking bath, washing face, or whatever he wishes. You can take from the kitchen and cook for him here whatever food he likes to have. Now take him away. Show him the garage and the cot.
Sushama listens to all the commands. She does not understand anything. She is serving Devi. She is eating the leftovers, doing the work in the kitchen. Even then, she is a woman. She is a widow. Should she lead a stranger to the cot, which is still warm with her husband's heat and sweat? Words do not come to her to say something. She is not getting strength to defy. She is an orphan. She wants to live. Her tiny beeny children also should live. Her only refuge is Devi's dependence. In her fingers, did the handle of the ladle get squeezed? Did the handle of the ladle brake? Did her ears, hearing the Devi's holy words rupture?
Go fast. He is waiting for you.
Lowering her face down to her feet, Sushama called:
That was an inner call. In that call her nerves melted. In that call she heard a roar.
In his standing pose Kishanlal called.
Devi's nose and upper lips wrinkled. Her eyes became reddened. Devi asked angrily.
What is this smell?
The milk boiled and spilled over.
Even then you are frolicking over here? Did you come here to see the drama, keeping the milk for boiling?
The smell of the burnt milk reached the loft also.
Milk is pure food. Burning of milk in the stove and the burning of a body in a funeral pyre are equal, equal to death.
In the broad verandah, closed by vertical bars, walking over the carpet, rubbing her slippers, lifting her hand up to the switch of the ceiling fan, Madhu Chaturvedi said - Yes, yes, this is a tragedy greater than death. You will worship the cow, but will not feed her. You will beg for food, but will not eat meat. You will not allow a girl to live or die, how much more she may wish to live -
Without taking her hand off the switch, looking at the three leaves of the fan, which had become alive, begin circling, she stood for a moment. This is only a beginning, a slow beginning. Now the fan will start circling in a rage, and drive away the smell of the burnt milk.
When he had a look at the curves of the body, standing inclined with raised hand, Kishanlal forgot what he was about to say. He called softly.
When she stood turning towards him, Kishanlal said.
What did Madhu say? Did I ever harass Madhu? Hurt you?
When Sushama appeared after keeping the milk vessel down, her face had become completely darkened. When she was pulling her sari over her head, Madhu Chaturvedi said.
Let him stay here itself tonight. Sushama need not take trouble.
Turning towards the loft, she invited Kishanlal.
Come, leave the bag. Sushama will bring the bag.
When Kishanlal crossed the door, Madhu Chaturvedi, entering the loft, took the carrybag and walking behind, reached him. Kishanlal was looking at the street lights between the iron bars of verandah. The street lights are also glass tubes! Each lamp is showering milky moonlight. Each lamp is a bunch of flowers, bush of blooming coconut flowers, showering down, each lamp is showering silver coins.
From behind, Madhu Chaturvedi said.
Come, come here, I shall show you the cot.