Moom – Chapter 1: by Bani Basu

The Agarwal family had worn itself out just paying the dahej for its daughters’ marriages.

‘Ladki dushman, daughters are devils, pray to God not to send another ladki to our family…’ His father’s urging rang in his ears as Hridaynarayan’s father started his working life.

After all these years, the prayer was fulfilled. No more daughters. No more women. Finished. Done with.

These Agarwals were baniyas from Jaipur. They didn’t belong to Haryana. Their home was in the village of Kharak in the Ajitgarh area of Jaipur. Pink sand was mingled with their complexion once upon a time. But then all that was long gone. Traversing the deserts of the north-west, they had been living in eastern India for many years now in search of a living. Now the skin of their men was like copper. The women were fair. But the colour of their skin no longer held the vigour of the flower that burst through the rock in the dry winds of winter and summer. Never mind the women. Ladki dushman.

That didn’t mean there was a river in the village of Kharak in Ajitgarh. Only a canal. When it swelled with water during the monsoon, it was time for farming. Rainwater was the only hope. The only water that could be drunk was underground. Tubewells about a hundred yards deep were needed to pump up the water. The water was sweet and healthy. It had been filtered by all the rock, gravel and sand it had passed through, after all! They grew bajra, jowar, some daal, a couple of vegetables. Relying in that dry village on the water from the rainwater from the canal and the sweet water pumped up through the sand, they may even have ploughed the land once, pugdis on their heads. The history of farming began to disappear from their bodies once they took up trading. And after they settled in the prosperous trading centre of Jodhpur, it vanished completely. Why Jodhpur, why the town nestling by the desert, why not the more luxurious pink city Jaipur were questions that the Agarwals of Ajitgarh or of Jodhpur would not be able to answer. All over the world, compelled to earn a living, people are abandoning the land of their birth in search of greener pastures all the time. The dreams of the homeland of Canaan or of Eldorado are not those of just a single nation. This yearning, this passage, is to be found the world over. A glance at the horizon of eternity will reveal the irregular silhouette of a vast human migration. Asians are headed for North America, Europeans towards Asia; Arabs, Persians and Turks from middle-Asia have spread across India and Africa, the Chinese are constructing Chinatowns all over the world. Within the continents, these migrations are even stranger, even swifter. Punjabis are becoming Calcuttans, Bengalis are becoming Telengis, people from Telengana are settling down in Delhi, in Haryana. Why the Punjabi can’t earn his bread in Punjab and has to move to Calcutta, why the Bengali prefers to live in Maharashtra, and why the Keralite in the tea-gardens of Assam, are very difficult questions to answer. Who knows where fate has decreed your meals will come from.

The main branch of Hridaynarayan’s family still lived in village Kharak in Ajitgarh. This was the family of his dadaji’s brother. They still traded in grain in the Ajitgarh area. Every branch had one or two sons and a swarm of daughters. Because of the paucity of sons, the families were still quite united. Relationships had been maintained over three or four generations. They met whenever there were weddings in the family. Their homes had electricity now, there were schools too, but they had remained somewhat rustic. When they visited, they still slapped their thighs in loud, passionate arguments over why an Agarwal boy had to marry a girl from a different sect, why the son-in-law was a Maheshwari, whether this particular Agarwal belonged to the Garg lineage or the Singhal lineage. Hridaynarayan didn’t like their miserly ways, their crude manners. But there was a tug at the heartstrings too. And besides, what of the girls’ weddings? He had to pitch in. These were responsibilities of the entire clan.

The Gangaur festival continued for a fortnight after Holi over there. Bedecked elephants and camels would be paraded. Dressed in long ghagras running for forty yards, nose-studs, ear-danglers, pendants round their throats, arms covered in glass bangles up to their elbows, anklets at their feet, the girls would join the procession. That’s why the natives of Ajitgarh in Calcutta would start feeling homesick as soon as Holi came. And what of the slice of moon floating in the clean air of the countryside like a slab of ice in winter? In that moonlight melodies floated out of village homes… ‘e manoa re, e gudiya re, nidiya aa jaa re…’ – ‘my heart, my girl, come now, sleep…’

So since Hridaynarayan’s grandfather had forsaken all those festivals of Gangaur and those moonlit nights to set off for Jodhpur, it’s fair to assume he was an enterprising man, that he wasn’t in the least bit interested in surviving through relentless battle against the unbearable heat, drought and cold. Maybe his loving mother had cried her heart out, maybe his conservative father had heaped curses on him. But nothing had deterred him.

Jodhpur was the Eldorado of trade. For centuries trade between middle Asia and India had taken place along this very Jodhpur-Jaisalmer route. Camel caravans would traverse the Thar Desert from one end to the other. Those bustling days of overland trade had never quite been wiped away entirely from Jodhpur. There wasn’t a product his grandfather hadn’t traded in. Tie-and-dye fabric, silk-embroidered footwear, camel-hair blankets, silver-inlaid brass objets d’ art, yellow sandstone utensils… the list was endless.

The rented house he lived in was close to where the tourist bureau in central Jodhpur now was. That was the house in which Hridaynarayan had been born. Later they moved to their own haveli near Sardar Market. The house with the staircase running outside, all the way from the ground floor to the second, was his childhood. Most of the downstairs rooms were used as godowns. As offices, too. But there was one room set aside for them to sleep in at the height of summer, for all their mischief. With his father’s sister, Badi Munni, and her sister Chhoti Munni.

Those two Munnis, Badi and Chhoti, were enemies number one in Hridaynarayan’s life. It was because of them that he was uprooted from the land of his birth to be despatched to this dirty, sultry city with its humid air-currents, the city that had set such a rot in his habits that he could no longer go back either. Not even if he had the means to.
He found it easy to recollect, whenever he wanted to, the image of Badi Munni, Chhoti Munni and himself eating black bajra rotis with dahi. On summer days all three of them had watermelon slices in their hands. You couldn’t get any other fruit back then besides watermelon. His first taste of fruit like oranges, apples or grapes came when he was older, when he came to Calcutta with his father. Now those desert regions had been transformed, high-quality grapes were being grown, other fruit and some vegetables too. Back then if you could get some sangri or some guar ki phalli subzi it felt like a festival. Pickles used to be preserved in large jars, left to dry all year round. Hungry? You always got ghee-soaked roti and pickles. Dadima used to make karhi. With green moong or mot ki dal alongside. Besides, there was buffalo-milk too. Nothing more. The next day you got rice. But then even at this age he was ready to walk a dozen miles for that meal of bajra roti with dahi and heeng ki achar.

But no, unlike Bengalis, Hridaynarayan wasn’t the kind of person to spend his time wallowing in regret and nostalgia. Jodhpur was his birthplace, which he had been forced to leave. A businessman can set down roots down wherever he can grow his business. Mumbai? Then off to Mumbai. Bangalore? Then off to Bangalore. He’ll go even where God himself has not if it means profits, he’ll spend his entire life in that godforsaken spot.
‘Ey Shyamlal, paani.’

Well? You got your glass of water, didn’t you? It’s not as though the water isn’t brought to you. Not that you’d care if it wasn’t. Their women were used to fetching water from the distant dam in rows of brass pitchers. This tribal ability to suffer, to toil away, was in their blood. So a lack of easily available water for drinking was no hardship either. They were willing to suffer any hardship if it was for business and profits. Hridaynarayan was no exception.

He had turned eighty and was now in his eighty-first year. A robust frame five feet eleven inches tall. Complexion like burnt copper. Close-cropped grey hair. His eyebrows were grey too. Bushy, shading the eyes. He didn’t have much of a moustache or beard to begin with, and he always shaved closely. His usual ensemble was a dhoti and a kurta. A thick gold chain with a golden medallion. A thick strand of the sacred thread was draped around him. He washed it himself with great care. Back in their days their fathers used to perform something like the ceremony involving the donning of the sacred thread. That practice no longer continued. For instance, his son Jagdish had no sacred thread. Hridaynarayan wore a red vermilion mark on his brow. A little elongated. He could still sprawl on the gaddi like political leaders. The only thing he couldn’t manage was the speeches. He didn’t even talk unless absolutely necessary.

‘Ey Misir, send bahu to me.’

Or ‘Have the bills been paid? Send reminders.’

Or ‘Write a letter to Ladli.’

Or ‘Send five hundred and one rupees to Pinki. Pota’s passed his exams.’

It was a holiday at the Kalikrishna Tagore Street office of Agarwal & Sons. But employee-attendance was hundred per cent. For it was Agarwal-ji’s eightieth birthday. The office, too, had been decorated like the Metro with thick marigold garlands. Yellow marigold alternated with saffron. Special pujas to Ganesh-ji and Bajrangbali-ji were underway. The office with its three partitions was filled with the tangy scent of incense. One round of Tiwari’s samosa and kachori and of Haldiram’s bhujia and laddu had already been served. Everyone – manager-ji, typist-ji, accounts clerk-ji, the doorman, the driver, the porter – had eaten. Maharaj had arrived to cook lunch, he was putting the khichri to boil. Gajar ka halwa was being stirred in a pot, he was making alu-matar and dahi-papri ki chaat too.

If anyone imagined Hridaynarayan’s birthday was celebrated every year they’d be wrong. The fact was that they were selling a large share of their business to the Chhabarias. All the employees at the Kalikrishna Tagore Street office were being transferred to the new ownership. The idea was to use the occasion to give the long-serving employees a treat, give them something to celebrate. These people were decent employers, the employees were in fact a little disappointed.

The Chhabarias had thrown a huge party the day before at a Theatre Road hotel. There too Hridayanarayan’s eightieth birthday was used as the ostensible occasion. But that didn’t mean he had dressed up specially. He had put on the fine dhoti and spanking clean kurta that bahu had set out for him, the chain with the medallion round this neck, his lips reddened with paan, a good deal of his uncovered feet and ankles, three times fairer than his face, visible from the back. He had on a Rolex watch, a diamond ring, there was a blood-red coral ring too, and the traditional vermilion mark on his forehead. The Chhabarias were even more aristocratic businessmen. The guests comprised eminent people in their social circle, such as government officers, judges, advocates, barristers and renowned doctors. Mobile phones in hand, they got out of Cielos and Opels, Maruti Esteems and Mercedeses. Pagers kept buzzing in their pockets. Was conversation even possible? Three messages arrived for Doctor saab Jaiprakash Seth. Emergency operation. Putting his plate of kulfi down, he barely managed a wave at Hridaynarayan and at Prabhudayal Chhabaria before leaving. The government officers were drinking with the new generation of businessmen. When Chhabaria tried to introduce Hridaynarayan to them with the words, ‘This is our grand old man,’ they just looked through him indifferently. Chhabaria realized they were no longer in any shape to offer their wishes to the person who was the primary reason for this party.

The next day a gathering with Hridaynarayan’s intimate circle of people was scheduled at home. Returning home around ten at night, he saw his third beti Ladli and fourth beti Pinki had arrived from their respective homes. Ladli was accompanied by her daughter-in-law and youngest son. Pinki had come with her husband. Her college-going son and daughter, and Ladli’s two elder sons would arrive the next day.

They were chatting with bahu. The daughters had brought huge quantities of sweets.

‘You don’t seem eighty, pitaji. My shaadi seems just the other day. Your eyebrows were black then, though.’
Ladli was well-built like her father, heavily-built like her mother. Naturally. Mother of four children, she was the daughter whom fate had smiled on. She used to be very cheerful and a pet. First her father’s, now her husband’s. May she remain happy and loved always. This love had been purchased at a high price. Despite that you couldn’t always make it last. To each their own fate.

His youngest daughter Pinki brought him his nightcap of milk. Bahu prepared it every night. Misir normally brought it for him. That was how he liked it. He didn’t want to be too intimate with his near and dear ones. Today, though, Pinki insisted on taking the glass from Misir and bringing it herself.

Pinki was dressed in a chiffon saree with red and yellow prints. Well-being oozed out of her, so did her complexion. Watching her, Hridaynarayan felt his heart brimming over with joy and pride. Such well-being, so much joy, so many achievements – he had given birth to aaaaaall of them. Where had this aurat with the black hair and round fair face been? She had been in a state of nothingness, a complete ‘no’. Only after he had arranged her passport and visa did she manage to leave that darkness of non-existence and descend as the light of life. Was he not some kind of bhagwan then? The Almighty?

Ram! Ram! Blasphemy. Was this the time to express such ghamand? On his eightieth birthday?

Pinki didn’t glance at the play of expression on her father’s face. Even if she did, she didn’t notice it. Wherever she looked, she was always face-to-face with her own happiness. Her husband, his love for her, her son, her son’s glorious future, her own joy, amongst all the joys that special joy was her own.

‘Change into your nightclothes and get into bed, bapu, after that I’ll give you the glass,’ she said, urged on by her joy and dutifulness. Milk was life for these people. So many feasts, such elaborate meals, but he didn’t touch any of it. He hadn’t tonight either. Fixed mealtimes, fixed bedtime, a glass of milk before bed. A glass of life.

Lalla lalla lori
Doodh ki katori…
Lalla lalla lori
Doodh ki katori…

Holding his bowl of milk, Hridaynarayan floated away into a milk-white reverie. Let the daughters and the grandchildren chat. Let bahu take care of them. Eighty years of habit were holding a warm bowl of milk to his lips. It made him sleep so soundly. Warm sleep. Bubbles of milk rose everywhere. Evanescent, they drifted away in the air. In his sleep he poured the foamy milk endlessly from one glass into another, more foam, more foam, a glass of foam atop a glass of milk. Life and the celebration of life.

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