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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Queen of Black: A Short Story by Jasumati Parmar

“Get up Hari, get up my son. Come on, we are late. And today you have to take with you your small sister as well. The children from morning shift were saying that today is the day of spicy khichri.”
Hari would get ready on hearing the name of khichri, but today he wouldn’t. Don’t know why. He feigned as if in deep sleep in his ramshackle khatli. Mani tried to wake him up by fondling his hand but he kept on lying crossed legged.
“My son, are you sick? Or haven’t finished your homework? Or the teacher beat you up?”
But Hari wouldn’t listen. At the thought of the khichri, however, Nanki was dancing to go to school.
“My sweet wise son, rise up. See there is not a grain in the house and you will have stomachful khichri there.” Mani dragged his foot this time but he started crying loudly.
“No, I am not going. All have school-bags and I have this dirty theli with darned patches? That Padiya, studying in Std I only, has a beautiful bag with three pockets – one for compass, one for lunchbox and other for books. No, everybody is laughing at me; go, I am not going.”
Mani placed her hands on his head and kissed on his forehead.
“My dear wise parrot, we are hard pressed for money this month, you know. Your father worked for a few days only. Wait, I will buy both of you siblings beautiful school-bags, I promise.”
And Hari got up. Not perhaps for the prospect of the bags, but for the tears that rolled down her mother’s face. Both left for school.
Mani’s house in the chawl was the poorest. Jivan would hardly get a week’s wages in the mill, as he could get work only if someone was absent in the night shift. He would occasionally drink, and would even play cards on small bets. He would come dancing and singing when he had won. Would bring with him Hajibawa’s qabab and jalebi for children. A blouse-piece for Mani. As if a celebration of festival in the house!  But when he had lost, he would tip-toe like a cat and lie awake in the khat silently. Mani would feed children with whatever leftover collected and soothe them by sleeping beside them. Children would fall asleep but Mani wouldn’t. She would slowly and without making any noise slip into the only khat they were having.  “Have the children eaten anything? “ Hari would ask her in low voice, lest they awake.
Jivan as such was a good man. He has never abused her nor ever slapped her. Yes, he calls Mani as ‘Kali’, but that is only because of the colour of her skin. Or may be because of her uncomely features. But certainly more because of his love for her. He also loved their children as a caring father. When not drunk, he would pick up his earlobe to confess his mistakes. He would promise not to drink or gamble any more. But when among his peers, he would again join them in the company and loose wages of the whole month.
“My ominous forehead! What is there in the house to cook?  Do you have any feeling for the children or me? You enjoy your hobbies of drinking and gambling as a king. We have to go hungry for days. Now, give me, this month’s wages.”
Mani checked into his pockets, one had a matchbox and some bidis, and the other had a piece of paper with figures scribbled on it. He had started playing the number-game of matka, but he couldn’t tell her. Friends were telling, it’s a good game to earn money without doing anything. Mani started weeping, but without sobbing. The children are sleeping and they were helpless.
“Had gone to the factory since morning. Walking the two gau distance. Waited at the gate for two hours. But refused to engage me for any work. Made many requests but the mukadam didn’t take mercy upon me. And that Savali and that Pashli smiled ha…ha…hi…hi…with him and he called them in. I know the secret. I am black and ugly. And to top it all, a lowly harijan.”
And Mani broke into sobbing. Jivan became sober instantly, as if getting over from the desi hangover.
“Kali, mind it, never ever go to the factory. These sons of a bitch, bloody wealthy people think our women are their dasis, and men their gulams!”
Mani stopped crying, solaced that her husband understood her plight. Feeling relieved, she put out the kerosene lamp and leapt into Jivan’s khat burying her head in his bosom.
At a stone’s throw distance from the dalit basti, there were flats and bungalows of high-caste people. But none wanted to hire Mani as domestic help, even a kachra-potawali. What their guests will say seeing her clean the floor of their drawing room, they thought! They must have a maid worthy of their caste status, fair in complexion and socially acceptable.
Mani had no options but hard work and drudgery. Those, most refused by others. She was usually called for her patent work – seasonal milling of chilies for the families that like to boast of keeping yearly stock. She was also remembered by the mothers and mothers-in-laws of pregnant women in the chawl – yes, to wash those dirty diapers and bleeding rags. Rest of the days, she would sling a sack and go rags-picking for the whole day. Would spread and sort out the catch in her room – paper, plastic, iron scrap, tube, tyre, bones, horns, all and sell them to the godown-man. Would return with a bottle of cooking oil, a head-load of logs for fire and other provisions to make their family meal for the lucky day.
Hari and Nanki would rejoice seeing their mother. They would open the small plastic bags and fill the contents – salt, gud, tea-dust etc in the pots and bottles. Hari would light fire in the chulha, and Mani would cook rotla on the earthen pan. She would ask: “Nanki - had your father come?   Did he bring something?”
“Yes mother. He was there with his friends. They were all playing cards for the whole day.”
Mani was frightened, lest he may open the adda in her own house! But on second thought, she compromised that it was because of the family he was after the cards and companions. Like her, he was also not getting regular work, she knew. Frustrated, he started drinking. He thought he would earn a few rupees if he ran this private adda at his house.
“Mother, tomorrow is first Monday of Shravan. Teacher will let us leave early. Shall we go to the Chakudiya Mahadev Fair?” Hari asked.
Chakudiya Mahadev.  Poor and hungry, sadhu or fakir – all get to eat ramroti at its sadavrat. Whenever there was nothing in the house, Mani used to secretly slip there in the evening with her children and eat there in the darkness. 
Meal could be free, but what about the merry-go-round and the magician’s show and the colourful toys in the fair? What if children want to enjoy rides and delicious delicacies?  How to go in the fair without a paisa in her sari-knot?  “Nanki’s father, are you listening? You do something, do anything, but manage for some money somehow. We will take these children to the fair tomorrow.” Mani requested from the bottom of her heart.
Whether he listened or not, he left the home hurriedly.
Mani and children waited for him late in the night. But Jivan did not turn up. Patting the children to sleep, Mani kept on staring at the door, lying awake.
And well past midnight, the door creaked open making as little sound as possible.  Mani lighted the lamp and she saw there was a guest with Jivan. He looked stranger and not one of her play- card companions.
“Kali, entertain the guest. Want to go enjoy the fair tomorrow, eh..?”
Mani stood aghast. She understood Jivan was dead drunk as was the lustful guest. She immediately awakened the children.
“Is it dawn, mother? Are we going to the fair so early? “
“Yes, my children. Let us go to the Chakudiya Mahadev temple. Yes, right now.”
She ran out of the house dragging the children behind her. She decided in her mind that she would never ever bother him for money.
Unable to understand the situation, Jivan fell on the khat and started blabbering in half-sleep: “Kali, today there were 2 queens in my game. Only one was required. If you had come, I would have won the jackpot.  Hariya’s school bag and your petticoat and everything would have been brought new… and enjoyed the fair of Chakudiya Mahadev…”

(translated by Neerav Patel)

Jasumati Parmar (born 1954) worked as a primary teacher for sometime and is now a homemaker. She writes occasionally, and her genre is short story with autobiographical  milieu. Her stories have been included in several anthologies like Pitrugatha, Vanboti Vartao,Madi Mane Sambhare Re