Saturday, December 5, 2015

Prem Chand's short story: A Widow of Many Sons (बेटों वाली विधवा)



                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
Read Prem Chand's short story :'A Widow of Many Sons' (बेटों वाली विधवा) translated by me. It is among his less popular stories. It is lacking in Prem Chand's characteristic genial humour and idealisation of character, and portrays a sombre and dark picture of the life of a mother of four sons, after her husband's death. 



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A Widow of Many Sons

(बेटों वाली विधवा)

1
When Pandit Ayodhyanath died everyone said God should grant such a death to everyone. He had four young sons and one daughter. Three of the four sons were married, the youngest son and the daughter were still to be married. Panditji left very substantial wealth and property. One pucca house, two orchards, ornaments worth many thousands, and twenty thousand in cash. Widowed Phoolmati remained in a state of shock for many days, but she recovered soon when she thought of her four youthful sons. All the four sons were well-behaved and all the three daughters-in-law so obedient! When she lay down to sleep at night they would take turns to press her legs. And when she woke up to bathe they would be ready with her sari. The household ran according to her commands. The eldest son, Kamta, was in service at an office for fifty rupees; the next, Umanath had obtained a degree in medicine and was looking to open his own dispensary; the third, Dayanath, had failed his BA exam but was able to earn something by writing for some magazines; and the fourth, Sitanath was the most intelligent and, having passed his BA in first division, was now studying for his MA degree. None of the boys had any bad, or waywardly or wasteful habits that scorch the parents’ hearts or sink the family’s reputation. Phoolmati was the mistress of the house, although the keys were in the hands of the eldest daughter-in-law. The old woman didn’t have that love of power which makes old people bitter and cantankerous, yet no child dared ask for sweets against her wishes. 

It was the evening of the twelfth day after Panditji’s death. Tomorrow would be the thirteenth day. Brahmins would be feasted. All the members of the community had been invited. Preparations were on for the feast. Phoolmati was watching the proceedings sitting in her room. The workers were bringing in bags of flour, cans of ghee, basketfuls of vegetables, sacks of sugar, and potfuls of curds. All the gifts for donation on the great occasion had been assembled – utensils, clothes, cots and bedclothes, umbrellas, shoes, walking sticks, lanterns ... but nothing was shown to Phoolmati. The custom required that these things should have been first brought before her. She would have looked at each item, approved it, altered its quantity, and only then these things should have been kept in the storeroom. Why did no one think it proper to consult her? Why did they bring only three sackfuls of flour where as she had asked for five?  And there were only five cans of ghee instead of the ten she had asked for! In the same way they must have retrenched on vegetables, sugar and curds. Who had intervened to change her orders? Who had the right to change once she had decided?

Untill today for the last forty years Phoolmati’s word had been the law. If she said one hundred rupees it was one hundred, and if she said one it was one. No one picked holes in her decisions. So much so that even Pandit Ayodhyanath wouldn’t go against her wishes. But today her orders were being disregarded so openly. How could she accept this?

She restrained herself for some time but in the end she couldn’t hold back. Absolute rule had become her nature. Angrily she walked towards Kamtanath and said, ‘Have you brought only three sackfuls of flour? I had ordered for five. And only five tins of ghee? Remember I had asked for ten. I am not against thrift, but it is shameful that the soul of one who dug the well should thirst for water.’

Kamtanath neither apologized, nor accepted it as a mistake, nor felt ashamed. For a moment he stood there in a defiant posture, but then said, ‘We decided that we should buy only three bags, and five tins of ghee were enough for three bags. All the other provisions have been reduced in the same proportion.’

Phoolmati said angrily, ‘By whose advice was the quantity of flour reduced?’

‘It was decided by us.’

‘So my view doesn’t matter?’

“It does, but we must also weigh up our loss and gain.’ 

Phoolmati was stunned. She couldn’t unravel the intent behind this statement. Our loss and gain! It was she herself who was responsible for the loss or gain in her house. Others, even if they were sons born of her womb, had no right to interfere in these affairs. This boy was behaving so brazenly as if the house belonged to him, as if it was he who had painstakingly built this household, and she was nobody. What arrogance!

Her face red with anger, she said, ‘You’re not answerable for my loss or gain. I have the authority to do what I think is right. Go now and bring two sackfuls of flour and five tins of ghee; and be warned that in future no one disregards my will.’

Phoolmati thought she had gone too far and need not have been so harsh. She regretted she had lost her temper. After all they were young and would have thought of saving some money. And they wouldn’t have thought of consulting her knowing that she herself was a careful spender. Had they known that she wouldn’t like to exercise thrift on this occasion they wouldn’t have dared disregard her wishes. Although Kamtanath still stood there and didn’t show any keenness to obey her, Phoolmati walked into her room well satisfied. She couldn’t even imagine that anyone would dare disobey her after that rebuke.

However, as the day passed the truth began to dawn on her that she didn’t have the same authority in the house as she had ten-twelve days ago. Their relatives had sent sugar, sweets, curds and pickles etc. for the occasion, and the eldest daughter-in-law was taking care of these as if she was the head of the household. No one came to consult her. And members of the clan who needed any information, talked either to Kamtanath or his wife. Kamtanath has no knack for managing things. His mind remains befuddled with bhang all the time and he goes to office very unwillingly and does not attend office for more than fifteen days in a month. Had it not been for Panditji’s influence with his boss he would have been dismissed from service long ago. And this good-for-nothing eldest daughter-in-law won’t understand these things. She, who can’t take care of her own wardrobe, is pretending to run the household. They will mismanage, and together they would bring a bad name to the family. They would fall short of something at the last moment. One must have a lot of experience for these things. There would be such a surfeit of some items that they would go waste, and such shortfall of some others that they won’t reach every leaf-plate. What’s gone wrong with them? And, now, why is the daughter-in-law opening the locker? How can she open it without her permission? No doubts the keys are in her custody, yet the locker is not opened until she herself wants the cash to be taken out. And today she is opening it as if she herself was nobody. She can’t stand it.

She jumped up from her seat and, moving towards her daughter-in-law, and said in a harsh voice, ‘Why’re you opening the locker? I didn’t ask you to do it.’

The daughter-in-law answered without any hesitation, ‘Some provisions were ordered from the market. Should they not be paid for?’

‘I must first know the quantity and the rates before the payment can be made. Nothing has been calculated. How can you make the payment?’

‘Everything has been calculated.’

‘Who did it?’

‘Now, how do I know this? Go and ask the men. I was ordered to bring the money. And I am doing it.’

Phoolmati swallowed the insult quietly. This was not the occasion to show her anger. The house was full of guests. If she rebuked her sons now, people would say that the family had broken up just after Panditji’s death. With a heavy heart, as if loaded with stones, she walked into her room. She would give each one of them a dressing down once the guests have departed. Then she would see how they stand up to her. They would forget all their brazenness.

But even in the quiet of her room she remained restless. She was observing the goings-on with vulture-eyed keenness: Which rules of hospitality might be broken, or the bounds of tradition crossed. The feast had begun. The whole community was seated together in a row. No more than two hundred people can be seated in the courtyard. How would they accommodate five hundred guests in this space? Why couldn’t they make guests eat in two batches? They could have ended at two o’clock instead at twelve. But here everyone was in a hurry to finish, and go to sleep. See how the guests are crowding around the place, unable to move their hands freely. The leaf-plates are overlapping. The puris have gone cold. People are demanding hot ones. Puris made from maida become rubbery when cold. Who’s going to eat them? Why have they made the cook sit away from the kadai? All this is going to bring disgrace to the family.

Suddenly there was a hullabaloo. No salt in the dishes! The eldest daughter-in-law hurriedly began to grind salt. Phoolmati was boiling with anger but she bit her lips, for it would be wrong to open her mouth on this occasion. The powdered salt was put on leaf-plates. Now there was another shout. People were asking for cold water. No arrangement had been made for iced water. A man was sent to the market to bring ice, but such a quantity of ice was not available at this hour. The man returned empty handed. The guests had to drink the luke warm tap water. Phoolmati would have liked to claw at her sons’ faces. Such a shameful thing had never happened before. And all of them were dying to assume control of everything! No one had the sense to order an important thing like ice. How could they when all they were interested in was gossiping? What would the guests think? Such a big feast and no ice!

Now what’s this noise again? Oh people are walking out. What’s gone wrong now?

Phoolmati could no longer remain a spectator. She came out of her room and questioned Kamtanath. ‘What’s it? Why’re the guests walking out?’ Kamtanath made no reply and slipped away. Phoolmati was annoyed. Suddenly she saw the water-carrier. Phoolmati asked and came to know that a mouse pup had been found in a guest’s curry. Phoolmati stood dumbfounded. She was so outraged that she wanted to break her head against the wall. The fools! This is how they had managed the feast. There can be no limit to their folly.  Why shouldn’t the guests walk out? Who would stand such a desecration?  All their efforts have come to a naught. Hundreds of rupees have gone waste. And on top of that the disgrace!

The guests had risen from their seats. The food was lying uneaten on the leaf-plates. All the four brothers stood in the courtyard shame-faced. They were throwing the blame on each other. The eldest daughter-in-law was blaming the other daughters-in-law and they were in return blaming her. Kumud was crying. At that very moment Phoolmati came there and said, ‘What more do you need to have your faces painted black? Go and drown yourselves, all of you, in a palmful of water. You are unfit to show your faces in the city.’ No one answered.

Phoolmati became still fiercer. ‘How does it matter to you, who’re shameless? It is his soul that is crying, he who spent all his life building the reputation of this household. You have dishonoured his pure soul. The whole city is talking about it. Now no one would come even to piss at your door.’

Kamtanath stood quietly listening to all this. At last he lost his cool and said,’ Ok, now keep quiet amma. It was a mistake, we accept, a grave mistake. Will you now keep plying the knife on our throats? Everyone makes mistakes and one feels sorry. You can’t kill someone for this.’

The eldest daughter-in-law tried to pass the blame. ’How did we know Kumud won’t be able to manage even this much. She should have put the vegetables into the kadai with care. She just emptied the basket into it.’

Kamatanath rebuked his wife: ‘Neither you nor Kumud is to blame for this. It is just a chance. Our misfortune that this had to happen. For such a big feast the vegetables are not put into the kadai by handfuls. Whole baskets are emptied. Such unhappy accidents do happen sometimes. Why should people laugh at it or put us to shame. You are needlessly adding fuel to the fire.’

Phoolmati crunched her teeth and said, ‘You don’t feel any shame, on the other hand you’re talking so brazenly.’

Kamtanath replied without mincing his words, ‘Why should I feel guilty? I haven’t stolen anything. No one cares about ants in sugar and weevils in flour. We didn’t see it and that spoiled everything. Had we quietly removed the pup no one would have noticed.’

Phoolmati was shocked. ‘What’s this? You won’t have hesitated to defile everyone’s dharma by feeding them a dead rat!’

Kamtanath said with a laugh, ‘Amma, no one loses his dharma like this. Tell me which one among these dharma-abiding fellows doesn’t eat goat or lamb. They don’t even spare tortoises and snails found in the pond. How did a small rat pup matter?’

Phoolmati now felt the doomsday was not far away. When the educated people begin to entertain such anti-dharmic views then God alone can protect the dharma. She walked away feeling humiliated.

2
Two months passed by. One evening after the day’s work the four brothers were sitting together confabbing in a relaxed mood. The eldest daughter-in-law was also taking part in the machinations. The subject of discussion was Kumud’s marriage.

Kamtanath, as he sat reclining against a thick cylindrical pillow, was saying, ‘What dadaji said should go with him. Murari pandit is learned and must also be highborn, but someone who barters his learning and high birth for money degrades himself. We won’t marry our Kumud to such a person even if we have to spend nothing, certainly not if it is five thousand rupees. Say no to him and look for another match. We have only twenty thousand rupees in all, and each one of us would get only five thousand. If we spend five thousand on dowry, and five on gifts and tips and music, we’ll be ruined.’

Umanath said, ‘I need at least five thousand to open my dispensary. I can’t spare even a rupee out of my share. And then I won’t be able to earn anything to start with. I’ll have to feed myself from my own resources for at least a year.’


Dayanath was reading a newspaper. Removing his spectacles, he said, ‘I’m planning to start my own paper. I need a capital of at least ten thousand for the press and the paper. If I invest five thousand I would be able to find a partner. I can’t live just by writing for newspapers.’

Kamtanath shook his head and said, ‘God knows, no one publishes an article for free. Where’s the question of payment?’

Dayanath objected, ‘No, that’s not true. I never write without an advance.’

Kamtanath replied, as if retracting, ‘I’m not talking of you. You’re able to extract something, but everyone doesn’t get it.’

The eldest daughter-in-law interjected graciously, ‘If a girl is fortune’s favourite, she can be happy in a poor family, otherwise she will be unhappy even in a princely family. That’s how destiny plays with you.’

Kamtanath looked at his wife approvingly. ‘And then, we have to marry off Sita too.’

Sitanath was the youngest of the brothers. He was sitting with his head lowered, burning to respond to the selfishness of his brothers. He opened out as soon as he heard his name, ‘Don’t worry about me. I won’t think of marrying until I can earn for myself. And the fact is I don’t want to get married at all. Today the country needs not more children but people who work. You can spend my share of the money on Kumud’s marriage. Since everything has been settled it would be wrong to break the agreement with pandit Murarilal.’

Uma retorted sharply, ‘How shall we arrange ten thousand rupees?’

Sita responded timidly, ‘I only want to forego my share.’

‘And the rest?’

‘We should ask Murarilal to reduce on dowry. I don’t think he is so selfish and may settle for less. If he agrees on three thousand, then five thousand should be enough for the marriage.’

Uma said to Kamtanath, ‘Do you hear what he says?’

Dayanath spoke out, ‘But you don’t lose anything. He is offering his own money, spend it. We have nothing against Murari Pandit. Why should you object? I’m happy that at least one among us is willing to give up his share. He doesn’t need any money now. He has his government scholarship. Once he has completed his studies he’ll get a job. That’s not the case with us.’

Kamtanath spoke, showing his farsightedness, ‘It’s not a question of us losing anything. If one of us suffers, will the others remain indifferent? He‘s just a boy and doesn’t understand. In bad times even one rupee equals one lakh. Who knows he may get a scholarship to study in Vilyat or enter the Civil Service. At that time he would need four to five thousand rupees for expenses. Whom would he approach for help then? I don’t want that his prospects be ruined for the sake of this dowry.’
Sitanath capitulated against this reasoning. Hesitating a little he said, ‘In such a situation I would certainly need money.’

‘Is that impossible?’

‘Not impossible, but it is certainly not going to be easy. Scholarships are given to those who have connections. Who’s going to help me?’

‘Sometimes connections also fail and people without them win scholarships.’

‘Then do what you think is proper. All I want is that Kumud should be well married, whether or not I go to Vilyat.’

Kamtanath said with a strong conviction, ‘You don’t find a good family merely through a good dowry. As your bhabi says, this is the play of destiny. I want that we should refuse Murarilal’s proposal and look for another family that agrees on a small dowry. I can’t spend more than one thousand on this marriage. What about pandit Dindayal?’

Uma responded happily ‘He’s very good. He may not be a graduate or post graduate but has a good income from his priestly services.’

Dayanath objected, ‘We should first consult amma.’

Kamtanath did not think this necessary. He said, ‘She seems to have lost her reason. The same old-fashioned ideas. She’s stuck on Murarilal. She doesn’t understand that times have changed. She wants Kumud to be wedded into pandit Murari’s family, even if we’re ruined.’

Uma raised another apprehension, ‘Amma will gift all her ornaments to Kumud, you’ll see.’

Kamtanath’s selfishness couldn’t cross the limits of the established custom. He said, ‘She has full rights on her ornaments. This is her stridhan; she can gift it the way she likes.’

Uma said, ‘So what if it’s her stridhan, she can’t throw it away like this. After all, this too has come from dada’s earnings.’

‘It may be anyone’s earning, she has absolute rights on them.’

 ‘These are legal sophistries. Twenty thousand should be divided among four and the ornaments worth ten thousand should belong to amma alone. You’ll see amma would marry off Kumud in Murarilal’s family using these ornaments.’

Umanath could not let go such a big sum so easily. He was a skillful con man. He would trick his mother to part with the ornaments. It would be wrong to anger Phoolmati now by talking about Kumud’s marriage. Kamtanath said that he didn’t approve of such crooked ways.

Umanath got irritated, ‘The ornaments must be valued at ten thousand,’

Kamtanath replied angrily, ‘Whatever their value, I can’t go against the custom.’

‘Then you keep off.’

‘Yes, I’ll keep off.’

And you, Sita?’

‘I too would keep off.’

When Umanath raised this question with Dayanath he was willing to join him. He would get at least two and a half thousand out of it. It was excusable to trick someone for such a large sum.

3
 Phoolmati, having eaten, had just lain down to sleep when Uma and Daya came and sat down beside her. From their facesit looked as if great misfortune had befallen them. She said, apprehensively, ‘You look upset?’

Scratching his head, Uma said, ‘Writing for the newspapers is a very risky thing. One may be as careful as possible but one is caught sometime. Dayanath wrote an article for which now a bail amount of five thousand has been demanded. If the amount is not paid he may be arrested and jailed for ten years.’

Phoolmati beat her head and said, ‘Why do you write such things, son? We have fallen on evil days. Can’t the demand be avoided somehow?’

Daya replied like a victim, ‘Amma, I hadn’t written anything objectionable but what can I do against fate. The district officer is very strict and doesn’t relent. I have been running about everywhere, now no more.’

‘Didn’t you ask Kamta to arrange for money?’

Uma contorted his face and said, ‘You know his attitude, amma. He loves money more than his life. Daya might be sent to the Blackwaters, but he won’t part with a single paisa.’ 

Dayanath supported him, ‘I didn’t even tell him of my problem.’

Phoolmati rose from her cot, saying, ‘Come with me. I’ll ask him. Money is meant to be used on such occasions, not for hoarding.’

Umanath stopped his mother, ‘No, amma, don’t talk to him. He won’t pay, and worse, he would raise a hue and cry. He has to save his job and he may even drive Dayanath out of the house. It won’t be surprising if he goes and complains to the officers.’

Phoolmati asked out of helplessness, ‘Then how would you arrange for the bail. I don’t have anything except my ornaments. Take them and pawn them for bail. And touch your ears and swear never to write a word for the newspapers.’

Dayanath touched his ears and said, ‘I can’t do this, amma. I can’t use your ornaments to save my skin. What if I spend five-ten years in jail? What am I doing here?’

Phoolmati beat her breast and said, ‘Don’t talk like this. Who can arrest you so long as I’m alive? I’ll singe his face. Ornaments are meant to be used on such occasions. If you’re in trouble, what use are the ornaments?’

She brought her box of ornaments and put it before him.

Daya looked as if pleadingly towards Uma and said, ‘What do you think, bhai sahib? That’s why I told you not to let amma know of this. I would have been jailed, nothing more.’

Uma said, ‘How could amma remain ignorant of such a serious matter. I myself couldn’t have kept it locked in my breast. But I can’t decide what is to be done. I neither like the idea of your going to jail nor the one of pawning amma’s ornaments.’

Phoolmati responded with a heart-rending speech, ‘What do you think? Do I love my ornaments more than you? I can give my life for you, these ornaments are nothing.’

Daya said very forcefully, ‘Amma, I won’t use your ornaments, come what may. Till today I have done nothing to serve you. How can I take away your ornaments? A son like me should not have been born of your womb. I have given you nothing except pain.’

Phoolmati spoke with equal vehemence, ‘If you don’t take them, I’ll myself go and pawn the ornaments and go to the district officer to deposit the bail. If you like you can test me. God knows what would happen after my eyes are shut, but as long as I am alive no one can cast an evil eye on you.’

Umanath spoke as if he was being generous to his mother, ‘Dayanath, now you have no choice. Take them. But remember the moment you have money in hand you’ll have to retrieve them. It is truly said that motherhood is a great penance. Who else can show such affection! We’re very unfortunate that we don’t show even a fraction of devotion we should.’

Both the brothers took hold of the box as if committing a grave dharmic transgression, and made off with the ornaments. Their mother was watching them with great maternal affection and her soul was longing to take them in its embrace. Today after months her motherly heart had the blissful satisfaction of having sacrificed her all. It was as if her innermost being had been looking for such a self-sacrificing occasion. There was no trace of any desire for dominance or profit or show of motherly love; it was pure and simple renunciation and the joy of it. This alone was her rightful possession and in having sacrificed her own life for her offspring she had found fulfillment.

4
Three months went by and the four brothers, having swindled their mother out of her ornaments, set about to placate her. They told their wives not to hurt her. Where was the harm if she can be satisfied with small courtesies? They did as they pleased; only making a show of consulting her by using all their wiles to obtain her consent. She hated the idea of selling off her garden, but the four wove such a web of deceit that she became ready to sell it. But they couldn’t reach an agreement on Kumud’s marriage. Amma was adamant on pandit Murarilal and the boys were insisting on Deendayal. Then one day a quarrel broke out.

Phoolmati said, ‘A daughter too has a share in her parent’s property. You got a garden worth sixteen thousand, a house worth twenty-five thousand and twenty thousand in cash. Can’t Kumud get even five thousand?’

Kamta spoke courteously, ‘Amma, if Kumud is your daughter, she’s our sister too. You will be gone in a few years but we’ll have dealings with her for a long time after. Then we would do everything within our means to support her. But if you talk of her share then Kumud has no share in this property. It would have been different if dada had been alive. He could have spent as much as would have liked on her marriage and no one could stop him. But now we have to spend each and every paisa with care. Why spend five thousand on something that can be done in one?’

Umanath corrected him, ‘Not five, ten thousand.’

Kamta raised his eyebrows and said, ‘No I’ll say five thousand. We can’t afford to spend five thousand on a marriage.’

Phoolmati became insistent, ‘Whether five thousand or ten thousand, it will have to be Murarilal’s son. It’s my husband’s earning. I have saved it pinch by pinch. I’ll spend it as I like. Kumud was also born from my womb like you. All are equal in my eyes. I don’t ask for anything from anyone.  And watch the fun, I shall do everything myself. Out of the twenty thousand five thousand is Kumud’s share.’

Kamta now had no option but to blurt out the bitter truth: ‘Amma, you are needlessly making an issue of it. The money you think to be yours doesn’t belong to you at all. That is ours. You can’t spend even a bit of it without our consent.’

Phoolmati felt as she was bitten by a snake, ‘What did you say? Say it again. That I can’t spend the money that I myself have saved? ‘

‘That money’s no longer yours. It’s ours now.’ 

“That would be yours, but after my death.’

‘No, that’s ours after dada’s death.’

Umanath remorselessly interjected, ‘Amma, don’t argue, you know nothing of the law.’

Driven by anger Phoolmati broke down, ‘I don’t care for your law. I accept no such law. Your dada was not such a wealthy man. It’s I who have built this household brick by brick, cutting on my stomach. Otherwise you would have been sitting without a roof on your head. You can’t touch the money as long as I’m alive. I have spent ten thousand rupees on the marriages of each of the three brothers. I’ll spend the same amount on Kumud’s marriage.’

Kamta also flared up, ‘You have no right to spend any money.’

Umanath upbraided his brother, ‘Bhai sahib, why’re you wasting your breath? Just write a letter to Murarilal that we cannot marry Kumud into his family. That’s all. She doesn’t know the law and is squabbling for nothing.’

Phoolmati controlled herself and said, ‘All right, tell me what the law is.’

Uma replied pitilessly, ‘This, that after father’s death the property belongs to the sons. Mother’s rights are limited to only food and clothing.’

Phoolmati shouted angrily, ‘Who has made this law?’

Uma replied very coolly, ‘Our rishis, maharaj Manu, who else.’

Phoolmati was dumbstruck, but said with a hurtful heart, ‘Do you think I live here on your crumbs?’
Umanath spoke with the cruel detachment of a judge, ‘As you like.’

Phoolmati’s spirit revolted against this bolt from the blue. Words came out of her mouth like sparks from a fire, ‘I built the household and this property. I gave you birth and brought you up. And now I’m an outsider here. Is this Manu’s law and you want to follow it? All right, take hold of your household. I don’t wish to live under your guardianship, and wish I were dead. I planted the tree and now I can’t stand under its shade. If this is the law then it should be burnt.’

Mother’s anger had no effect on any of the four young men. Law’s steel armour protected them against these brickbats.

Phoolmati left the place soon after. For the first time in her life her motherly affection had hit her like a curse. The motherhood, which she had regarded as the greatest blessing of her life, and for which she was gladly willing to sacrifice all her desires and urges, had now become a furnace in which her life was being burnt to ashes.

It was evening. The neem tree at the door stood quiet, its branches bowed down; as if anguished at the ways of the world. In the horizon the source of light and life was, like Phoolmat’s motherhood, aflame on its funeral pyre.

5
When Phoolmati lay down in her room she realized that her back was broken. She hadn’t ever imagined that sons born from her womb would turn her enemies soon after her husband’s death. The sons whom she had brought up on her own lifeblood had dealt such a heart-rending blow. Now this house had become a bed of thorns for her, where she had no dignity, where she counted for nothing, and it was unacceptable that she should spend her days as an orphan living on others’ crumbs. But there was no way out. If she lived apart from her sons it would blacken the name of the family. Whether the world spat on her face or on her sons’ faces it was all the same. People would say that in spite of being the mother of four sons the old woman was forced to live as a wage earner. Those whom she had treated as lowly would now mock her. No, that dishonor would be worse than what she faced at home. It was better to suffer behind closed doors than face public mockery. She would have to adapt herself according to the circumstances. Now she would have to live not like an owner but as a slave. That was God’s will. The insults and humiliations from one’s sons’ were better than these from strangers.

For a long time she covered her faces and kept shedding tears. The whole night passed in great anguish. The winter sun rose from the red east as if a prisoner had escaped from jail. Phoolmati rose from her bed much earlier than what was her normal routine. Her mental state had been transformed during the night. Everyone in the house was asleep and she was sweeping the courtyard. The hard surface of the courtyard drenched in frost was biting her naked feet like thorns. Panditji had never let her wake up early in the morning. The winter season was very harmful for her health. But those days were now gone and nature too was urging her to change her ways. After sweeping the floor she lit up the fire and began to sift out fine stone particles from rice and dal. After sometime her sons woke. Then the daughters-in-law. All of them saw the old woman working in shivering cold. No one stopped her. Perhaps they were all pleased at the old woman’s crushed self-pride.

From now on this became the rule for Phoolmati. To work unremittingly and to remain disinterested in everything else. In place of the previous self-respect her face now reflected deep anguish.  Where there was once an electric light there was now a flickering oil lamp that a whiff of air could blow off.
The decision to write a refusal letter to Murarilal had been made, so the letter was written. Kumud’s marriage to Deendayal was settled.  Deendayal was a little over forty. In status he was a shade lower but he was making a good living. He agreed to marry without any settlement about dowry. The date was fixed. The marriage party arrived, the marriage took place, and Kumud was sent off. Who can know how Phoolmati felt, or how Kumud felt. But the four brothers were happy, as if the thorn pricking their hearts had been removed.  Belonging to a high-ranked family Kumud could not protest openly. If she was destined to be happy it would be so, if not she would suffer. God’s will is the last resort for the helpless. The man whom she was married to may have a hundred flaws, but he was her worshipful master. Going against this belief was beyond her imagination.

Phoolmati didn’t interfere in anything. What gifts were given to Kumud, how the guests were entertained, what gifts were received from near relations she took no notice. If she was consulted on any matter she daid, ‘Son, whatever you do, you are the best judges. Why ask me?’

When the time for Kumud’s departure came she embraced her mother and began to cry. Phoolmati took her to her room and handed over to her the little money and a few commonplace ornaments that were left with her and said, ‘I have been helpless. This is not how I had wished to marry you off. This is not the way I wanted to send you off.’

Till now Phoolmati hadn’t talked of the fate of her ornaments to anyone. Whether or not she understood the fraud her sons had played on her, she knew that she won’t get the ornaments back. Asking them back would only increase the bitterness. But at this moment she felt the need to explain. Kumud should not go away with the feeling that her mother had kept back her ornaments for her daughters-in-law. But Kumud already knew this, so she handed the money and the ornaments back to her mother and said, ‘Amma, your blessings are more than enough for me. Keep these things with you. You may need them sometime.’

Phoolmati wanted to say something but at the same moment Umanath came and said, ‘Kumud, what’re you doing? Hurry up; the auspicious time for send-off is passing. They are asking us to hurry up. You’ll be coming back in a few months. You can then take whatever you have to.’
It was like adding insult to injury. Phoolmati said, ‘I have nothing to give her, son. Go, my daughter, may God protect you husband.’

Kumud went away. Phoolmati fell down flat. Her desire to live was gone.

6
A year went by.

Phoolmati’s room in the house was the largest and the most airy. She had vacated it for her eldest daughter-in-law and had begun to live in a small room, as if she was a beggar here. She had no affection for her sons and daughters-in-law. She was a slave here. She showed no interest in any household affair, or person or object. She was alive because death would not come to her. She had no knowledge of the joys and sorrows of the family. Umanath opened his dispensary. Friends were feasted and there was dancing. Dayanath started his press, and there was feasting once again. Sitanath got a scholarship and he went to Vilayat and there was celebration again. The sacred thread ceremony for Kamtanath’s eldest son was performed with great pomp, yet there was no trace of joy on Phoolmati’s face. Kamtanath contracted typhoid and was bed-ridden for a month. Dayanath, in order to increase the circulation of his paper, wrote an objectionable article and spent six months in jail. Umanath took bribe to write a false report in a criminal case and his licence was cancelled. Yet there was not even a shade of sorrow on Phoolmati’s face. In her life there was no hope, no interest, and no anxiety. To work like animals and eat, that was all she lived for. An animal works only when forced but eats wholeheartedly. Phoolmati worked without being asked, and ate as if she was swallowing poison. For months she wouldn’t oil her hair, or wash her clothes. She had become indifferent to everything.

It was the monsoon time. Malaria was spreading. The sky was overcast with dark clouds and the earth was covered with muddy water. The humid air was breeding cold and asthma. The domestic maid had fallen ill. Phoolmati washed all the utensils, did all the chores wetting herself in rain. Then she lit the fire and started cooking. The boys should get their food on time. All of a sudden she remembered that Kamtanath didn’t drink tap water. It was raining. Yet she started for the Ganga to fetch water.

Kamtanath said, as he lay on the cot, ‘Leave it, amma, I’ll bring the water. The maid has let us down.’
Phoolmati looked at the overcast sky and said, ‘Son, you’ll get wet and catch cold.’

Kamtanath said, ’You too are getting wet. You’d fall ill.’

Phoolmati said in a sarcastic tone, ‘I won’t fall ill. God has made me immortal.’

Umanath was sitting close by. His dispensary wasn’t earning anything, so he was quite worried. He had to look up to his brother and sister-in-law for support. He said, ‘Bhai leave it. She has reigned over her daughters-in-law for too long. Let her expiate.’

The Ganga was in full spate and looked like the sea. The other end of the river was touching the horizon. The trees on the banks were drowned in water up to their branches. The ghats were under water right up to the last step. Phoolmati stepped into the water with the brass vessel, filled it and was walking back when her foot slipped. She lost her balance and fell into the river. She kicked her hands and feet but the waves carried her downwards. A few pandas on the bank shouted, ‘Oh run, the old woman is drowning.’ A few people ran to save her but the old woman had been swallowed by the whirling waves.

Someone asked, ’Who was that old woman?’

‘Oh the same, Pandit Ayodhyanath’s widow.’

‘Ayodhyanath was a big man.’

‘Yes he was. But she was destined to face the cruelties of fate.’

‘She has many grown-up sons. All of them are doing well.’

Oh yes, brother. But there’s something called destiny, too.’ 
                                                          
                                                   (Hindi, Chand, November 1932)
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