Fiction: Mulberries are Ripe

Santosh Shrivastav
Original in Hindi by Santosh Shrivastav
Translated by Rani Motwani



There was a storm in the sea. All night the wind was blowing. With the whizzing of the wind rain showers lashed against closed windows and doors. At daybreak, the milk man’s bell woke me up.
Didiya hasn’t got up? Every day she picks up the milk from him. I kept the milk bag in the kitchen and glanced towards her room. The light was on. She has got up, I thought, but wondered why did she not come to pick up the milk.   I opened the door of her room slightly and peeped in. She was lying on the bed unconscious. Window panes were open. The room, the bed and Didiya were wet. Gulmohar flowers  fallen inside the room were scattered all over on the floor and on Didiya’s body too. I was shaken up. “Didiya get up… you are all wet!”

I held her cold hands and shook her, but her body did not move. Her eyes were eerily shut. “Mummy! Come fast. Didiya is not saying anything.” My screams shook up the whole house.  The doctor came after half an hour, examined her and announced she was no more. She had died of a heart attack some three to four hours before.

The whole house was in a state of shock.

Rani Motwani

Didiya’s life too was full of stillness. She had completed sixty-two years of her life walking on the dismal path of her desolate life. She had been staying with us for the last fifteen years. Our grandparents were no more. She was attached to her youngest brother, my Papa. Grandmother had told me that when my father was young, he used to call her Didiya instead of didi (elder sister). After that every one called her Didiya. Her beautiful name Damayanti was used only in her school and college certificates. We too never called her bua (father’s sister). Instead, we called her Didiya.. She never married. All other chachas (father’s brother) and buas were married. All buas got married after completing their school education but Didiya studied further. She wanted to work after doing her Masters but her father was against girls working outside the home. As the time passed, her age to get married or get a job was over. But the question as to why she did not get married remained a secret. She had shared the secret with me after a long time……
It was a bright and sunny day, without any trace of the previous night’s storm.  Everything was calm and still. The road was scattered with gulmohar petals and leaves.  Broken branches hung from trees. The city was awake. Mummy had put Didiya’s wet mattress and sheet on the balcony parapet to dry.   Her body lay on the floor-mat covered with a white sheet ready for her last journey. Her fair, beautiful face looked alive. Long eyelashes were closed with boundless happiness. The gulmohar flowers and raindrops coming from the open window could have given her momentary happiness. She was very close to nature. She loved water.

She must have happily embraced her death while welcoming the rain spray as it wet her.  She died so peacefully. no rushing to hospitals, no commotion, no treatment.  Raindrops blown in from the window made her feel so fulfilled that she turned away from life.

There was a well in the middle of the courtyard of my grandfather’s house. She would draw water from it to water the flower and vegetable beds. If any plant withered, she would feel sad. She caressed the plants with her hands and conversed with them. Looking at the clouds, she would say, “Don’t go away without raining. My plants are looking up to you with hope” If it rained continuously, she would say, “How much will you pour down now?”

She did not let that rain water go to waste. She tied a big sheet between two pillars in the courtyard and  left a pitcher under it. The rain streamed down into the pitcher. The water was used for drinking and cooking. She washed her hair with this water as well. Her long hair became soft and silky. Dadi (grandmother) used to say, “She is a Mangli (born under the influence of Mars). That is why it is difficult to get her married.”

Many suitors were arranged for her, but she rejected them. She was interested in studies. She had read many books. She had written critical appreciation of every book read in her register, though she did not get it published. She kept a yellow flower in the book after finishing it. After that she would be humming for weeks. She taught me a lot of things. “Runa,….. Don’t waste your life in useless pleasures like jewelry, clothes, make up every woman does. You become special.”

She would open a leather attaché to show me her collection of postal stamps. There were so many stamps from all over the world. She would take out a stamp and say, “This is rare. Made by astronaut Neil Armstrong. He was the first one to walk on the moon. He made it while he was on the moon. This blue ball is our earth.

I would look at her gleaming eyes and the stamps stuck in her fingers with awe. She would open a red velvet  purse and show me the coins of different countries,  “This is a copper coin with a kangaroo from Australia.. …… Runa, I am so busy taking care of all this that I don’t feel lonely at all.”

She loved animals. She had many pets. Cats and dogs. Sparrows ate grains from her hand and drank water from the pot of water kept under the shed made for ridge gourd and beans. Didiya regularly washed the pot in the morning and filled it with water for the birds. If by chance cows or buffaloes drank water from the pot, she would not run after them. She would allow them to drink the water. Dadi used to say, “She is water creature. By accident she is born as a human being.”

She loved swimming. She never got tired of swimming in the Narmada.  While I would sit on the bank of the river, she would say, “Runa, see, I am drowning.” She would dive and I would watch with bated breath. The few minutes would seem like hours. These were anxious moments. She learnt swimming from her father when she was six and swam with the waves like a duck. Her father used to call her a duck. That was in the village where there were a lot of water bodies a river, a well - water everywhere. But this was a great city. Water was supplied in tankers. Their seven storied building had still to receive water from the municipality. Water was filled in the tank on the terrace from the tanker and then distributed. Every flat had a separate meter.  One paid as per one’s consumption.  Didiya used water generously. The water bill doubled.  Papa would get angry, “This is a big city. We have to pay for every drop of water”. Didiya would laugh, “Is it water or milk?”

“Consider it as ghee and milk.  If you use so much water, one day we won’t have water to bathe”, mother would taunt.

Now two big drums of water were kept in the balcony. The Society had released water for two extra hours.  The house was full of relatives. Everyone used water without a care.  Who could stop them? I felt hurt. If  Didiya gave water to pigeons, mother would  taunt her. Flight of pigeons came into  the balcony. Didiya regularly spread a kilo of millet in the balcony and kept a vessel of water. Street dogs too were attached to her. She gave them biscuits and water. She tutored few students to compensate for the increased expenditure. Every evening four to five girls came to learn Hindi and Sanskrit. She was happy in their company.

Didiya had kept flower pots in both the balconies. Every morning and evening she watered the plants with the pipe. She would clean up the muddy mess on the balcony floor for which she was ridiculed every day for using so much water.

“It’s waste of water. So much water for few flowers! Didiya, you are in a big city. You must learn to live like everyone else here.”

One day she got enraged. “I will stay the way I am used to. When I die you can put my bones in the dry well.”

That was the first and last time, I heard Bua speak angrily. My father immediately hugged her, and she wept.

She cried too when I had asked her “Didiya, who is this?” I had found a picture in the pages of her book while reading.

She snapped, “Where did you find this?”

I got scared. I bowed my head like a criminal and said, “Sorry, Didiya.”

She kissed me, “Stupid, how will you survive if you become emotional like me… This world is not for people like us.”

For long time she cupped my face in her hands. I took courage and looked at her. The large black eyes were moist. “This is Jagdeesh, Runa…”

Her voice was deep as if coming from a tunnel…her face had turned red,  the colour of  the sun just before setting. She leaned on the bed. Dreams that were dormant came out in the open.

“We were both made for each other. We spent many years for each other. We had a common dream. That dream brought smiles to our faces. We dreamt about it while sleeping as well as in our waking hours. We lived in the hope that some day we would have a home where we would live together. … where there would be only love and the delightful cries of our children, but… he was in the army. During the China war he had to go to the front. I was bent on getting married before his departure. But both families refused. We were not of the same caste, and I was a manglik. They sent a message saying, ‘you want us to lead our son to death in his young age!’ Father too sent a message saying, ‘we too don’t wish our daughter to be a widow at a young age’ He was adamant. He went to the front saying, ‘it’s better to be martyred for the country rather than become a martyr here’

“He left. My heart ached. I kept waiting for him. After the war was over, he returned with minus one leg. He came on crutches to meet me. He said, ‘Damayanti, you get married. My life has become a burden. I will not be able to make you happy.’

‘I knew you would say this’, I replied.  ‘What about the nights I spent waiting for you?  I have lived every moment for you. You had said, no dream is bigger than life.  And faith? Faith is important when it is more than life itself. You are my faith, Jagdeesh.’

His lips trembled, but he did not cry. We sat silently for a long time looking at each other till the moonlight embraced our feet.

My father arranged an alliance for me in a feudal family. They wanted an heir. I was not ready for this condition. This became the reason for my refusal. My father said angrily, ‘Why are you wasting your life for that cripple?’

“I wept bitterly. ‘He is not lame… Your daughter has become crippled’… I wanted to retort.  I readied myself to burn slowly like a joss stick without Jagdeesh. No one knows Runa that after father’s demise, how much Jagdeesh helped me. In that big house, I was alone with bed-ridden mother for six years. The jewellery that she had kept for my marriage had to be sold for her treatment. Brother helped but he had limitations…his family...their expenses. But Jagdeesh, he was one of a kind. He came on the crutches to the hospital every day to help. Not even for a single day did I have occasion to say, ‘fruits or medicines are over’

We stopped thinking about us. We had come to accept that we were not meant to be one. Life can be meaningless but we have to live till our last breath. Jagdeesh kept trying to get a job, but by now he was neither fit for the army nor an ordinary job. How long could his parents support him? Sometimes we felt like staying together but that we couldn’t while my father was still alive, I couldn’t do it after his death. This life is not ours. We have to live this curse till our last breath.

One day, Jagdeesh brought a box of sweets, ‘Let’s celebrate with sweets. I have got a job.’

‘Oh, really! Where?’  I thought at least life had turned at some bend point. I felt as if there was a carpet of velvet flowers under my feet.

‘I have got a job in a school in Uttaranchal as a mess in charge. I have to just sit and order.’

I was sad. I said, ‘So, you will go away from here? How will I live without your support?’

‘I am not going anywhere. My body is going there. I will always remain with you’, he replied.

He showed me his appointment letter. I took the letter, but did not read it. I knew it was not a paper but a treaty in which was the agreement of the destruction of our relationship which we had tacitly agreed upon and on which we both had signed years ago.

That night itself mother died. He kept his crutches on the floor, sat near her body, keeping the small lamp burning throughout the night till the next morning when everyone came. That was when everything was lost; that house, memories of that house, the garden, all my birds, animals, the river, the well and Jagdeesh. Occasionally, he sometimes sang a Pathani song that he had learnt during his army days. I could not understand the song. He used to explain the meaning after every stanza. “In the deep forest Majnu (name of lover of Laila in Persian poetry) is crying because Mulberries are ripe and Laila is dead.”

Before leaving for Uttranchal, Jagdeesh too must have seen the ripe mulberries.

Didiya wept bitterly. She wished to fly, but was not able to find her own sphere.

Didiya’s remnants were kept in an urn wrapped in a red cloth. I insisted on joining my family members going to Haridwar.

My father nodded his consent silently. I took the picture of Jagdeesh from Didiya’s book and all the dry yellow pressed flowers kept between the pages of the books in one of her handkerchiefs, which must have definitely witnessed some tender moments between the two.

Mother went near Papa and said softly, “Give offerings generously. All her life she lived  with restraint”. She sobbed “No one should suffer like her”.  Papa patted her shoulder and we left for the station.

The Ganges, like our Juhu beach sea water was muddy.  So, Ganga Maiya also knew that Didiya loved to walk in the waves of the ocean rising on the beach of Juhu. Frothy waves soaked her till her knees, but she loved  standing  in the waves, till the sunset. Then she would be sad. It was difficult for her to  take in the scene as the darkness crept in slowly.

The mountain had fallen in Gomukh; its soil flowed into the Ganges. I sat with Papa and my uncles in the ferry that swayed to the choppy rhythm of the muddy Ganges, the urn kept in the middle.  A garland of Marigolds was wrapped around it.  The Pandit accompanied us. The boatman stopped the boat in the middle of the river. Panditji then began reciting the Mantras (sacred verse of the Vedas) and together they immersed the urn in the Ganges. I too immersed the small bundle made of the handkerchief while no one was looking. There was Jagdeesh’s photo and some dry flowers in the bundle. The bundle stuck to the urn and kept flowing with it. When the urn was filled with water, it turned diagonally and started sinking in the river. The bundle stuck in the garland too started sinking in the water with the urn. 

Didiya disappeared in the Ganges slowly with her love. Now she would have no dearth of water. Now no one would taunt her about being a manglik.  Everywhere there was water. Didiya was nowhere;  it was as if Mulberry trees had sprung up on the waves of the Ganges, full of ripe fruits. “Jagdeesh, your Damayanti is dead.” I felt as if Jagdeesh was not in the wilderness of the forest but was sinking in the Ganges water to meet Didiya. I hugged Papa and cried. All were crying silently. It was getting dark when the boat reached the shore.

It’s now a month since Didiya has left us. The silence of her room often pains me. At home everything is as usual as when she was around. I thought everyone  would have felt relieved with the plentitude of water; but what is wrong with everyone? Why is everyone behaving like Didiya? Papa now waters plants with the pipe in the same manner she used to. He washes the balcony floor. He keeps a pot of water and spreads a kilo of millet in the balcony regularly. He even tells me, “Runa, go and give biscuits and milk to the dogs in the street.”

He looks at his white shirt and says to mother, “You have not washed it properly. It’s yellowish. It’s smelling of soap too. You are being stingy with water. Wash like Didiya.”

I look at the picture of Didiya hanging on the wall and whisper, “You are not dead Didiya, you have become water, and you are still with us.”
*** 

Translator: Rani Motwani is well versed in English, Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu and Sindhi. She believes translations open vistas to read literature written in languages unknown to us. It gives us an insight into the values of different cultures and communities. Her book “Kaynaat and other Stories’” is an English translation of Urdu stories. The book “You & Other Short Stories” is a compilation of Hindi stories translated into English. Reverberation of Revenge is a novel translated from Hindi to English. Stories written by her in Hindi have been published in Harigandha and Lokganga magazines as also in the book ‘Seep mein Samudra'. She has also worked at Akashwani Mumbai as a Radio Announcer. In this digital era you will also find her on storymirror.com.

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