The Mound of Khana-Mihir

From ‘The Mound of Khana-Mihir’: Bani Basu

The river Dhonnya was gurgling along. Some of the ground alongside was clear, covered in grass and small shrubs; beyond them lay the forest. Flowers bloomed. Flowers wilted. But at night? Nights were very dangerous. People were not safe during the day either. A variety of animals lay in wait. Just the other day a wolf had nabbed the mud-spattered baby named Shukko. But still they weren’t afraid. The threats were always there. Those who were taken away in the jaws of animals, or by the current, or by rain or fire, became silent and invisible. It was right to accept this. The forest was a little less dense at this spot; the light flashed on the currents, and the scent of water was discernible from a distance. Beasts, birds and humans all came here from wherever they lived to drink water. Their feet raised dust. The grass and shrubs were flattened; water dripping from their hands and feet and mouths on the way back soaked the earth. Tiny flowers sprung up among the blades of grass overnight, like stars. No one gave them any consideration – they were crushed underfoot again. This sprouting and being flattened went on constantly, unceasingly. Amidst all this the Dhonnya gurgled along. It was unmoved.

Ranka…a, Ranka…a – the cry came suddenly, breaking through the barrier of the forest. Ranka…a! The caller had cupped her hands around her mouth. Her voice was as powerful as a horn’s. Matangi. Matangi was calling. The cry held an urgency, perhaps anger too? There would well have been anger. A swamp of disobedience always lay between Matangi and Ranka, where rage could burst to life like the light of a will of the wisp. But why the anger? Was there anxiety too? They knew very indistinctly what anxiety was. When Shukko could not be found, it occurred to Matangi after three suns and three moons – where’s Shukko? I haven’t seen Shukko anywhere. Who’s giving him his milk?

Arjya had said very calmly – A wolf has taken Shukko away.

– What? You saw? And you didn’t do anything?

– I was guarding the field of grains. I had gone to the river for a drink of water. A herd of deer was grazing in the distance. I couldn’t even catch my breath. The deer are so cunning. He was playing in the dust. A wolf picked him up by the scruff of his neck. He didn’t get a chance to scream. His neck snapped instantly.

– One human less – Matangi had sighed angrily – all these grains fall to earth and then spring up again, they grow so quickly, the lovely white milk gathers in their golden tips. Don’t we need more humans to take care of these grains, to guard them, to observe their ways, to sow seeds, to harvest the tips, to clean and store them? We need many, ma…any people. Even the children can do so much; we need lots and lots more humans. And yet a wolf takes away a simple little human and you, Arjya, are telling me… three moons later. Shame! Matangi roared… and then a wordless murmuring sound emerged from her lips. ‘Matangi’s weeping, Matangi’s weeping,’ rose a cry. The small children nearby leapt on her at once. One of them tried to clamber up her knees into her arms, another one lowered its head on her shoulder, some were rubbing their lips on her hands and feet, a few had jumped on her huge, firm, mountainous breasts, sucking her nipples. This was how they wanted to calm Matangi down. She looked like a lioness surrounded by her cubs. ‘Go to Arjya,’ Matangi had told them hoarsely. ‘Go to Adri, Ranka. Adri will give you milk.’

Ranka was experiencing an unknown sensation. Her body was smarting, her heart was rebelling. An ache in her belly, an emptiness in her breast. She had screamed – I shan’t go to Adri. Nor to Arjya, I want Shukko, I’m going to Chhando. The obliteration of Shukko, Matangi weeping for the first time, and all the strange changes within her had overwhelmed her, making her unintelligible. Chhando had held her close – I’ll give you a Shukko, Ranka, I’ll bring milk to your nipples, Ranka.

They had gone off fearlessly into the dense forest. They had not been afraid of wolves or foxes or bears. They had watched the lovemaking of deer with great pleasure, the copulation of doves too. And Chhando had wrapped his arms around her from the back in the same way. Since then, Ranka didn’t go anywhere near Matangi. The distance between them kept widening – on both sides. Chhando and she always moved about in a pair. No one disturbed then. Only Sham said sometimes with a smile – when you no longer like Chhando come to me. I’ll give you a Shukko too, milk too.

Matangi was calling. Her cry wafted in, bouncing off the wall of green. Their leader, the gargantuan, large-eyed, unique Matangi – so adept with weapons – was calling. Ranka ran in the direction of the call. As swiftly as a deer. Leaping over bushes, sidestepping the rabbits and monkeys and the civets, she sprang along. For Matangi was calling. After a long time. Calling Ranka.

She did not know how far she had run. Abruptly, she stopped. Where the clearing should have begun stood a wall of humans. Behind them the joy in the field of grains was luminescent with the light falling on it. But all this was hidden behind Sham, Adri, Arjya, Alambush, Gridhna, Arjama, Ratri, Samba, Kutil, Haban, Sarva, Jagat – all the men and women from their area. Their faces were anxious and stiff; they had bows and arrows on their shoulders, sticks and spears in their hands.

Haltingly Alambush said – we will probably have to retreat far, far behind this field of grains. Do you agree, Shingha?

– No – roared Matangi.

Shingha had roared – what a roar it was!

– Ranka! Did you see any strangers by the river? They’ve wandered in from the distant land on the other side. You’re there all the time – said Matangi in a worried but tender tone.

– Strangers?

– Yes, just like us, but a little different. You can tell they’re foreigners. From another clan.

Adri said – imagine trusting Ranka! She floats along with the current of the Dhonnya, looking for flowers and fish and moss. She stands on the bank of the river like a crane, unblinking. She sits by herself. She sees nothing, hears nothing. Ranka is absent-minded.

And at once Ranka remembered. Nimesh, his name was Nimesh. His face had floated up like a bubble where she had been swimming, catching tiny fish amongst the marine plants and then releasing them back into the water. Small of build. His hair flowing down to his waist, a sheepskin loincloth around his waist.

– Who are you? – She had asked in surprise, perhaps with some fear.

– I… um… wh… who are you?

– You tell me first who you are, I asked first.

– Nimesh… I am Nimesh.

– I am Ranka.

– Remember my name, Ranka, I am Nimesh. Will you remember? – The man slid off just like a fish to the opposite bank as he spoke. He lifted his head briefly, his long hair plastered to his scalp, dripping water profusely. He said – but don’t tell anyone about this meeting of ours, Ranka.

Raising his head out of the water once again, he said, I’m your water-friend. We’ll meet again in the water. Secretly.

This was from seven moons ago, or even longer. Ranka was indeed forgetful. She had forgotten. Just as she had forgotten Chhando, Sham, Ari, Sudan, and Ram. None of them had had her company very long. She liked many men. But how strange! The attraction of the morning vanished in the afternoon, today’s longing vanished tomorrow. What could she do? Everyone knew that this was how she was. At that moment she felt a violent desire for Nimesh in her belly, in her nether parts. In her breasts. Falling on the earth, she screamed in sexual pleasure.

Annoyed, Matangi said – this one’s good for nothing, take her into the deep, one of you. Else she’ll be driven mad.

No one paid attention to Ranka anymore. Everyone was looking at Shingha. At Matangi. Anxiety was writ large on their faces.

Shingha said – it’s just that I’m sure they’ve come to know about our grains. We’re the only ones here to consume grain and store water in earthen pitchers; there’s no one like us. The barbarians don’t know anything. Flowers grow from the earth, the grass grows too. Still they don’t understand. But how did they find out? The Dhonnya is our frontier, it protects us. From across the Dhonnya… didn’t anyone notice?

Matangi said emphatically – why, just the same way that we came to know. Don’t you remember the dogs and mongooses running in from the direction of the river? Their noses to the wind, the clicking of the mongooses could be heard clearly amidst the barking of the dogs. Their fur was prickling. Don’t you suppose they don’t have dogs or mongooses too? And besides, the grain? Its fragrance? The wind? Don’t you think the wind blowing in their direction would have carried the scent of grain? There’s nothing more treacherous than the wind.

Shingha said – we’ve lived through so many suns and moons, Arjama. We’ve battled with barbarians, we’ve battled with bandits. They don’t fight openly. In the middle of nowhere you’ll suddenly discover an arrow embedded in your chest or your arm. That’s it. But they never touch the grain. There’s no fruit they don’t eat, they know the value of different roots. When they run out of animals to hunt and fruits, they move elsewhere. Till the land, sow the seeds, water them, harvest the crop, clean and store – they don’t care to do all this. These people must be from areas we don’t know of.

The same day, when the moon had just begun to climb up the wall of the sky, while the water of the Dhonnya glittered in the dark, the forest was filled with the cries of monkeys and jackals. A completely unknown and alien neighing, accompanied by staccato hoof beats – louder than deer – shook the area. Shingha, Matangi and their people ran towards the river in silence, their bows and arrows and spears raised. Matangi and Shingha were in the vanguard, the rest fanning out in a half-moon configuration behind them. A group of warriors appeared on the opposite bank with clacking sounds. The animals raised their heads to the sky, neighing loudly, making the heart quake.

One of them shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth – step aside, lay down your weapons, we have horses, we can cross the river on them. We won’t have to swim across. Obey us.

Shingha roared like a lion. Matangi echoed his cry, shaking the forest. A hundred arrows and spears flew through the air. Screams, agonised groans, crying, followed by arrows and spears from across the river. Matangi’s group ducked. The enemies’ weapons flew overhead. Jumping back to their feet in an instant, Matangi’s people fired their arrows again. And through this web of arrows the enemy forces began to storm across the river with big leaps, plunging their spears into bodies and severing heads with their swords. The sharp, mighty blows from the feet of the animals alone killed and maimed many in Matangi’s group.

– Tie them up with ropes – An unfamiliar voice. Heavy. Loud, like a clap of thunder.

An arrow had pierced Ranka’s right arm. She was slumped beneath the peepul tree in agony. She was not as tolerant of pain as the others in Matangi’s group. Her threshold was lower – she was rather delicate. Her complexion was the colour of a drop of blood mixed with milk fresh from a cow. Her blue eyeballs sat in the centre of oval eyes. Matangi would hesitate to assign arduous work to her. When she smeared herself with mud, bathed in the river, emerged from the water, dried her garment of bark, used the sap of trees to affix flowers to it and then put her bark garment on, Matangi would glance at her with a mixture of affection and contempt. She would say – this one isn’t ready. Ranka’s learning nothing. If someone takes this daughter of Matangi’s away against her will, there’s nothing she can do. This is what lies in store for distracted young women. But Matangi will give chase – even give up her life to save her daughter from the abductor. Even though this will harm everyone… Shingha, Sham, Adri, Arjya… for no one here is as brave, as intelligent, as Matangi. When Matangi needs advice, the only person she consults is Shingha. But that’s only for advice. Ranka had better remember this.

The sun was up. The earth was awash in a mild orange glow. Ranka opened her eyes in agony. The blackness had not left her eyes yet. She could sense the colour of the sun, but she could not see it clearly. By her arm, a man with a face covered in hair and a beard was pulling the arrow out. Her eyes were streaming with tears at the pain. A grated salve was applied to her arm, and then it was bandaged with thin leaves. Ranka’s sight returned slowly. – I am Nimesh, do you recognise me, Ranka?

– Nimesh! Nimesh! Nimesh!

Her questions went from searching to more searching. From weak to normal to strong. – How did you get here? Do you know that people from the other clan have fought with us? They have finished us.

– Yes. – Nimesh’s smile seemed to confirm the information she had provided.

– Do you know they have taken the help of an alien, hateful creature…

– Not hateful at all, but a favourite of ours. Horses, Ranka. They are called horses. As strong as they are swift and beautiful. We are the horse-riders.

– We? You too…

– Yes, I, too…

– Then you are a spy? You had sneaked in to survey our homes?

– I must do what I can to ensure food and shelter for my clan.

Nimesh picked the injured Ranka up in his arms. He walked carefully so that her injuries were not aggravated. Corpses were scattered in the clearing between the Dhonnya and the fields of grain; some of the injured were tied firmly with vines to trees. All of them were unconscious, their heads lolling. Ranka spotted Adri, dead. Shingha’s head was rolling on the ground. Sham was lying on his stomach, senseless. The horses wandered about, their riders on their back. Nimesh bore her through the battlefield. Suddenly he stopped. And shouted – friends, we have discovered this wonderful form of vegetation on the bank of the Dhonnya river. They spring up through the earth, they provide us food, strength, vigour. The prisoners will teach us how they grow, how to nurture them. I am giving these crops growing by the Dhonnya river a name, dhaannyo. We have won dhaannyo. And I have won this woman. I have not found anyone so alluring in our own clan. This is my woman. Remember this from now on, she will live in “my” cave, bear “my” children… – He kept talking, kept talking, dipped his finger in his own and in Ranka’s wounds and smeared the blood on her forehead. – here is my mark. – Ranka listened in surprise. She could not understand him clearly and at that moment she received a severe shock. Matangi lay beneath a gigantic tree, covered in blood. Her enormous eyes were pointed at the sky, but they were sightless, her breasts pointed upwards, her garment of bark was in tatters, lying bunched up nearby. Screaming ‘Matangi… Matangi… Matangi…’ Ranka leapt out of Nimesh’s arms, running up to her before anyone could react. She flung herself on the inert body. Matangi’s frame trembled, and, like a soft, very soft, breath, she whispered – Ranka…a… , the cry disappearing in the sky.

– Matangi, Matangi… don’t go, Matangi… wake up… Matangi… Ma…a…a…


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.