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Kautik on Embers

By Uddhav J. Shelke

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Mondays the mill was closed for the weekly Hinganghat market. Godubai was at home. She’d got to know what had happened. So she stopped Mahadev on the verandah and asked him in a warm, caring voice, ‘Mahadevbapu, did Govinda say, do something to hurt you?’

As usual Mahadev didn’t answer. So she coaxed, ‘Would you like to set up another shop?’

‘What do I have to set it up with?’

‘You may or mayn’t, but first say if you will…’

‘I will,’ Mahadev said, bashfully but brightly. ‘If it’s possible.’

Godubai worked hard at it. A brand new machine arrived home from the Singer company. She pleaded with Govinda to give Mahadev his pair of broken-pointed scissors and to fetch down for him an old wooden seat from the loft. Mahadev didn’t have a tape measure but he made himself one with a cloth band of two arms’ length and one finger’s width. He marked it with black thread at intervals of four fingers’ breadth with equal divisions in between. Mahadev measured clients with this ‘tape’. Cut cloth with the broken scissors. And soon the machine was whirring.

It whirred at home. Mahadev had to pay the company five rupees a month to pay off its cost. The company would own the machine till he paid fifty rupees. Then he’d be the owner.

That was going to be a long time yet.

The day the machine arrived on the verandah, Mahadev separated from Govinda’s family. One Monday he asked Godubai to get him four rafters and bamboo matting from the market. Using them, he made a lean-to with his wife’s and son’s help. What had been one home was now two. Two cooking fires burned in two corners. Ganga still roasted wheat chapatis on her griddle; but Kautik made bhakris of coarse millet, roasted on hot embers raked out of the cooking fire. They might be accompanied by vegetables, and then again not. When they were not, she gave her children red chilli powder mixed with yellow linseed oil instead, and threatened to hammer them if they breathed a word about this in the outside world. Namya, the younger one, would still kick and stamp at the sight of the chilli and oil. On Nagpanchami day he threw an all-out tantrum. He kicked away his plate of bhakri and chilli and oil and screamed, ‘In other people’s homes they’re eating karanjis and papdis and you…’

Kautik didn’t wait to hear the rest. She pushed her bangles all the way up to her elbows and shouted, ‘Are you going to shut up and eat or not?’

‘Not going to eat.’

‘Watch out.’

‘Yes, yes, yes! Won’t eat.’

But he couldn’t speak after that. Words got mixed with tears. Kautik was thrashing him. With every blow she raged, ‘Won’t eat?’

Finally she broke his will. He could barely breathe for crying. He looked to his father for help. Every time before this, when Kautik had beaten the boys, he had gotten angry with her, and felt sorry for them. He’d said things like, ‘You’re a monster! Why not kill the boys off once and for all’ and held them close. But that day he didn’t say a word. Not only did he support his wife, he incited her by saying to Nama, ‘With fancy ideas like yours, you should’ve been born to a rich Marwari; why to a pauper like me?’

Finally Ganga, who’d been hearing the battle cries issuing from behind the bamboo matting, came to Nama’s rescue. Freeing him from Kautik’s grip and wiping his nose and face with her sari-end, she said, ‘What’s this, sister? Why pour your rage on the child?’ Then she took him to her part of the house, saying, ‘Come with me. I’ll give you anarasas and papdi. Come.’

And truly she fed Bhima and Nama on rich fried savouries and sweets till their bellies ballooned. On top of that, she gave Bhima and Nama a standing invitation for all festivals to come. But it wasn’t their luck to accept.
One day soon after, Mahadev, who’d been acting dispirited since the morning, dragged on somehow till the afternoon. But once he was sure there was nobody at Govinda’s, he leaned his elbows on the machine top, hid his face in his hands and began to think. When he continued sitting that way even longer than expected, Kautik, who’d been hovering around, asked in a tearful voice, ‘What’s it? Does your head hurt or something?’

Mahadev shook his head heavily.

Kautik looked even more tearful. ‘Then why are you sitting like this?

‘Why make me say things, woman?’ he said. ‘I don’t know why, but my heart just won’t settle here.’

‘Why? What’s wrong now?’

‘Everything,’ Mahadev’s voice suddenly rose in anger. ‘The machine doesn’t work. Four mouths to feed here. The company to pay off there. How’s one man to manage?’

‘So what do you say we do?’

‘I’m not going to stay here,’ he couldn’t stop himself from blurting out.

‘Then where will you go?’

‘I’ll go anywhere. Whichever way God takes me.’

‘Let’s go then.’

‘Why should you come?’

‘Then what should I do here?’

‘Stay with your brother.’

‘Dear Lord, did I marry to stay with my brother?’

Mahadev bent his head. Kautik said, ‘What do you say?’

‘What can I say?’

‘I’ll go.’

‘Where?’ Mahadev said, rousing himself.

‘Wherever you go.’

‘Give me up,’ Mahadev said, his voice trembling worse than before. ‘I can go live anywhere.’

‘I’ll come wherever that is,’ Kautik said, pulling her sari-end off her head. ‘I’ll be where you are. If you cut grass, why should I feel ashamed to tie sheaves?’

‘And the brats?’

‘Where we go they come. What’ve the poor souls seen yet that we should leave them behind and go?’

They continued talking like this, husband and wife, for a long time. Occasionally he’d tell her to keep quiet. At other times she’d plead with him not to weep. They stopped only when they heard people stir on the other side of the bamboo matting.

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