V. Shirurkar Birds teach their young ones to fly. Then the fledglings leave the nest. Kharemaster left Manutai and started his journey home, but he did not realize that on that day he had planted the seeds of his future loneliness.’
This is an extraordinary true story of Anant Khare who appeared to be an ordinary drawing teacher, living and working in a village school near Pune at the turn of the century. He decided that his contribution to the nationalist movement would be to ensure that his daughters were educated to the highest level. And that is what happened. By the twenties, his dream had been fulfilled. His daughters were independent career women. His wife too was running a flourishing dairy. Everyone was successful.
Writing about her father at the age of 88, his daughter Balutai, using her pen name Vtbhavari Shirurkar tells us the story of Kharemaster and the world he lived in. Vibhavari herself embodied Kharemaster’s dream. Yet she is a detached narrator, unflinchingly honest about herself as she is about her father. She tells us that after giving over his own life completely to the making of his children’s lives. Kharemaster felt empty and excluded. Were the children responsible? Quite simply there was no undoing the past.
Malatibai Bedekar, who uses the pen name Vibhavari Shirurkar, was born Balutai Anant Khare in 1905. She graduated from Karve University al the age of seventeen and went on to do her Ph.D. in Sanskrit. A distinguished writer who courageously exposed social oppressions; her works in Marathi include Kalyanche Nishwas (1933), Hindolyavar (1934), Bali (1950). Shabari (1962) and Kharemaster (published by Popular Prakashan in 1993). The author and her husband, Vishram Bedekar, live in Pune.
Yashodhara Maitra is a scientist who lives and works in the USA.
TRANSLATED FROM THE MARATHI EDITION
I had always wished to write about my parents and nearly two years ago I managed to complete around seventy-five pages. When I re-read those pages I felt that I had merely put some information down on paper, but somehow the depth of meaning was missing. Finally, with Ramdas Bhatkal’s encouragement, I made up my mind to complete this work. At that point my health betrayed me, and I thought of asking Vishram Bedekar for help. It was easier said than done. I realized that I would have to work on this book alone. To console myself I thought that, after all, a dependence on your husband in order to disengage from your parental obligations would have met the approval of today’s feminists!
There are some references in the text to contemporary events. Some of these dates have been changed purposely. J would like to thank Dr. Sunand Sane for his suggestions on this book.
7 March 1993 M. B.
Vibhavari Shirurkar, BA, shocked the Marathi middle class in 1933 with the publication of her first book of short stories, Kalyanche Nishwas. As the name suggested, the stories held within them the sighs of women whose lives had never found fulfilment. Two novels were published over the next two years: Hindolyavar (1934) and Virlele Swapna (1935). These books also dealt with the oppression of women in middle class homes, and the storm of criticism against the author continued to rage in both orthodox literary circles as well as among liberal social reformers. The orthodox were angry because the author had dared to question tradition, and the reformists because they felt that their efforts at improving the women’s lot had not been acknowledged. They felt that Vibhavari Shirurkar’s books were a travesty of truth.
Who was Vibhavari Shirurkar? It seemed like a pen name, but who was hiding behind it? All over Maharashtra, especially in Pune, there were scathing reviews, condolence meetings to mourn the author’s ‘death’ and wishful obituaries in newspapers. Some people went to the extent of burning Vibhavari’s effigies at public meetings. Yet no one seemed to know exactly who it was that they were protesting against. Never before or after had had Maharashtra witnessed such furore over a literary event. It was more than a decade later that the author’s real identity was disclosed as Miss Balutai Anant Khare, then superintendent of Kanyashala, a well-known school for girls in Pune. The publisher of her books was H.V. Mote, who had worked this device of the pseudonym in order to enable the author to write freely and frankly, and, what is more significant, had kept her identity a secret for such a long time.
Balutai Anant Khare, born in October 1905, was no ordinary schoolteacher. She had graduated from Karve University at the age of seventeen. This institution, now known as the famous SNDT University, was founded by the great pioneer of women’s education, Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve. Balutai Khare first came under Karve’s influence when she was taken by her father to join one of his schools at Hingane, a village near Pune. Her elder sister Manutai (later Krishnabai Mote), had preceded her there. Kharemaster, their father, a humble village schoolmaster with limited education, had a dream that his daughters would one day become graduates and post graduates. For him, taking his daughters to Hingane was a wish fulfilment, for the daughters, Hingane opened the doors to a whole new world. Many eminent Marathi writers, Sanskrit scholars and thinkers had been drawn to Professor Karve’s work for the cause of women’s education. Balutai Khare had the opportunity to study under some of them. There was a nationalist agenda attached to Karve’s mission: Marathi was followed as the only medium of teaching.
In those early days of female education in India the Karve Ashram Boarding Home had more young widows and abandoned women as boarders than young girls interested in formal education. Manutai and Balutai Khare were exceptions. Despite the financial stress, theirs was a happy family where the children’s well-being and education received priority. Suddenly Balutai was exposed to the cruel realities of the lives of the women who lived around her in the ashram. She was too young then to grasp it all. But these women would talk among themselves, and their cries and sighs filled the boarding rooms at night. This exposure left such an indelible mark on Balutai’s mind that years later, when she emerged as Vibhavari Shirurkar in the literary world, she found herself writing about those women of Karve Ashram.
After graduation Balutai Khare joined Kanyashala as a teacher. Within a few years she was made superintendent of the school. At the same time she continued with her own studies. She wrote a thesis on rhetoric or alankar shastra for her post-graduate degree in 1931, entitled Alankar Manjusha. It won her high acclaim and it continues to be appreciated by scholars. This extensive reading of Sanskrit texts and classical Marathi literature enriched her language and style. Balutai Khare was then invited to collaborate with other scholars in writing a treatise on Hindu law. As this law borrows heavily from the Smritis, she read those old texts in great detail and arrived at the conclusion that the plight of the Hindu woman was almost a direct result of these laws. She felt that she ought to do something about it. Balutai Khare began to write about women as she had known them, in book after book, under the pen name of Vibhavari Shirurkar.
Vibhavari Shirurkar’s second book, Hindolyavar, is the story of a lonely middle class woman; she is married, but her husband has deserted her. She has no choice but to live this life of utter misery till she meets a man she likes and decides to live with, ‘in sin’, because in those days divorce was neither easy nor common. Virlele Swapna is about a new generation influenced by Marxist ideology.
Balutai Khare married the well-known litterateur and film-script writer and director Vishram Bedekar in 1938 and since men she has been known in the literary world as Malatibal Bedekar, She went on writing about the problems of women, both fiction and non-fiction, for many years of her life—Jaai (1952), Shabari (1962) and Uma (1966), all novels, and several short stories. Yet it was Bait (The Victim), a novel on the criminal and nomad tribes of Maharashtra which she wrote in 1950, that brought her real fame. Bali is regarded as the first work of fiction in Marathi on the lives of the dalits.
As the superintendent of her school, and in her zeal for social service, Balutai Khare had a lot of interaction with people from various sections of society. She saw the lives of the women of the depressed classes from a close distance and this added a new dimension to her understanding of the woman question. She saw, for instance, that the higher caste woman, when abandoned by her husband, had no escape at all from a defunct marriage. The lower castes seemed to solve the problem by sanctioning divorce by custom. But these were only patchwork palliatives—at the root of women’s oppression lay the problem of lack of education and awareness. How was it that after fifty years of liberal, reformist thought the woman’s situation had remained so unchanged?
Towards the end of the nineteenth century there were important debates on the woman question raging in Maharashtra. That was a time of great social reform—ban child marriage, taboo tonsure of widows, allow widow remarriage, open the doors of education to women. Once these reforms were more or less accepted, the debates seemed to come to a halt. Vibhavari Shirurkar tried to show in her novels and stories that a programme of reform cannot be an end in itself. The solution of one problem gives birth to another. In works such as Uma and Shapiro educated and economically independent girls cause discord within families, the new woman finds that often her expectations from life and marriage are not fulfilled. Vibhavari Shirurkar continued to remain involved with social issues. She even contested the elections from a socialist platform, but did not win. She wrote some plays too and translated Eleanor Roosevelt and Sinclair Lewis into Marathi. She seemed to have settled down to a peaceful, retired life when at the age of 88 she wrote a novel on her father’s life. Kharemaster (1993) is hailed not only as a great biographical work but also as a book which puts into perspective a life that encompassed Balutai Anant Khare, Vibhavari Shirurkar and Malatibai Bedekar. It is a story of her times.
A NOTE ON THE TRANSLATION
The meanings of most of the Marathi words retained in this translation will be clear from the context; hence a glossary has not been deemed necessary.
Memories. A lifetime of memories. Etched deeply in my mind. Eighty-five years later, they remain as fresh as ever. Unfading. One leading to another, then to a third, and so on and on and on. Sometimes I sit engrossed, watching their play. I get amused, saddened and startled by turns, finally I tire out. I have become quite old now. Reading hurts my eyes. Walking makes my feet ache. The very threshold of my home has become too high for me to cross, it keeps me a prisoner here. So I go to a window and look at the passing world outside. But it is totally wrapped up in itself. It has no time to take notice of me. Again loneliness and a sense of being useless overtake me. I become restless, and seek solace in counting the beads of memories in my Japmala.
Yet memories can be obstinate. Obstinate and wilful. When I want a particular one to show up, it will not oblige, but an unwanted one might start hammering at my mind’s door, like a ruthless creditor relentlessly pursuing his quarry, refusing to leave me alone. And once again I’m drawn unwillingly into their clutches.
Fifty years have gone by, but that final memory of Anna’s last illness still haunts me to this very day. Towards the end, my father, Anna, had a stroke. At that time, I had made my own home in Pune. My brothers and sisters were scattered all over India, busy with their own lives. I used to visit Aai and Anna daily, as a pious person visits the temple. One day Anna had a seizure. He could no longer speak. He just lay there, helplessly; staring without blinking. To see him reduced to this was heart-wrenching. Aai never left Anna’s side; she took care of his every need, but with a feeling of helplessness. She rested briefly only when I visited them.
One evening the dreaded message arrived, ‘Anna has lost consciousness.’ I rushed to his bedside. Aai sat by Anna, crying silently. I sat near Anna’s feet. He lay very still, his expression peaceful. I composed myself with great difficulty. I felt Anna’s chest and there was a faint heartbeat. I put my hand on his forehead, bent over him and said loudly in his car, ‘Anna, I’m Balu, I’m here.’
I watched Anna carefully as I spoke; I thought that maybe for an instant his eyelids fluttered. My cousin Appa had heard somewhere that applying the blood of a pigeon would enable a stroke victim to speak again. Maybe he had done this and it worked, for Anna’s eye-lids moved. He half-opened his eyes and looked at us. He didn’t seem to recognize anyone, but he was making a tremendous effort to do so. Aai sobbed with relief and folded her hands in prayer, I added my words to her silent plea. ‘Anna, Anna, wake up. Anna, this is Balutai. Talk to me. Anna get well quickly. Anna, we want you with us for many, many years to come.’
My extreme joy over Anna showing signs of life must have transported me, in an instant, to my childhood. I babbled on and on like a child, repeating myself over and over again. When I was a child, I could ask Anna for anything and he had never turned me down. Even now, I felt that Anna would listen to me. He would get well, sit up and talk to us. But Anna was staring blankly. His lips quivered, but there was no sound. I could bear it no more. ‘Anna,’ I sobbed, ‘Please, please won’t you get well. You have done so much for us all our lives!’ He looked at me and seemed to recognize me. He seemed to make a great effort to speak. And then the clear words rang out, ‘Do you really mean that?’
I was devastated by those words. Even now I can hear their echo, and my heart is heavy. What was Anna saying? Did he feel that we were unaware of how he had toiled for us, the sacrifices he had made? In fact, we, his children, were eternally grateful to Aai and Anna, but we had never expressed it in words. Was that why Anna doubted our feelings? But children know that what they owe their parents cannot be measured! And they carry that awareness proudly, deep within themselves. It is not a debt that can be repaid in instalments, nor is there any creditor demanding its repayment. So children rarely give any receipt for that debt. Only in a crisis, do these walls of silence come tumbling down and the children’s deep, abiding love and devotion are exposed.
Many years after Anna died, Aai developed cataracts in both her eyes. None of the children were- with her and the treatment was neglected. She began to lose her vision. As soon as my brother Bapu found out, he rushed from Calcutta and took Aai to a German doctor in Bombay. Bapu was very bright, capable and successful but he was a man of very few words. He would do anything for his loved ones, but he was not one to express his feelings. The doctor examined Aai’s eyes. ‘Both eyes are affected,’ he pronounced. There is just one solution. She wilt be able to see only if we can find a donor.’ Bapu responded at once, ‘Doctor, give her one of my eyes. Do anything, but my mother must be able to see.’ Aai started to cry. ‘No, Bapu, no. I don’t want to see the world by making you blind. No, I have seen all I wanted to see.’
How I wish Anna had witnessed this; all his doubts would have been laid to rest. The debt of love, however big, can be repaid by a single look or word of gratitude spoken from the heart at the appropriate lime. Anna had asked, ‘Do you really mean that?’ Had I, then, never acknowledged this debt by either a look or a word? I have learnt over the years that words have the power to hurt. Unkind words that are best left unsaid can hurt; but so can the holding back of words that need to be said.
I was reminded of an incident that happened many years ago. At that time I was not married, and I lived with Aai and Anna. I was to give a talk someplace that day, and was deeply engrossed in planning what I was going to say. I began getting ready, I washed my face, and stood in front of the mirror, applying a kumkum tikka to my forehead. At that moment Anna asked, ‘Are you going out?’ Yes, I have to give a lecture.’ ‘Wonderful! What’s the topic?’ Absent-mindedly I said, ‘Oh, just something.’ I realized that Anna was hurt by my curt reply. I applied (he kumkum and turned around but Anna had walked away. I was planning to go and tell him about it but somehow it slipped from my mind. After that Anna never once asked me where I was going! It was only on the day Anna asked me that terrible question that I realized how hurt he must have been by these small incidents. Right there, I made a firm resolution. ‘I’ll make up for the past. From now, I’ll talk about everything freely.’
But Anna did not stay to hear me. His eyes were closed forever.
With Anna’s death, his children converged on Pune, together again after many years. We discussed amongst ourselves what would be best for Aai. Bapu said, ‘I’ll take Aai home with me.’ Baal responded, ‘No, no, why take her so far away? I’ll take her home to Nagpur.’ Mana said, ‘I want to lake her to Bombay.’ loiter, all of us gathered around Aai. One by one we began taking our leave of her. ‘Aai, it is time we went back.’
‘Of course, you must go. What can you do by staying here?’
Bapu, Bal and Mana, each insisted that they wanted Aai to go home with one of them. Aai said, ‘No, I’ll slay right here in Pune,’
‘Oh, I’m not alone, Appa is here with me.’ While saying this Aai rose and opened the large wooden trunk.
‘Come, I want you to divide this amongst yourselves.’
The trunk contained silver articles, collected over the years. There were plates, little round bowls and drinking tumblers; we had eaten festive meals off these on special occasions—sacred days or days of celebration. A faint smell of age-old attar escaped from the attardani, and I could almost feel the drops of rose-water being sprinkled from the gulabdani. Each silver article was engraved with Aai’s name. This was Anna’s way of providing for Aai after him. We responded in unison, ‘Aai, please leave all these things in the frank. We don’t want any of these.’
‘I know, but I just want each of you to have something to remember your father by.’
‘Aai, we don’t need those to remember Anna. Anna and you made us what we are today. How can we possibly forget him?’
One by one, my brothers and sisters left for their respective homes. I was the only one in Pune, and I visited Aai regularly. We spent hours together; Aai reminiscing fondly about Anna, weeping softly all the while. And I loo would be deeply moved.
Mien I went to Aai’s one day, i found her sitting on the floor, next to the open trunk. ‘Balutai, look! I found this bag at the bottom of the trunk.’ The bag was crammed full of papers, about fifty sheets, covered with Anna’s writing. Aai asked, ‘What’s written here?’ I leafed through them. ‘Anna has written the story of his life, starting from his childhood.’ ‘So that’s it! He used to write every afternoon. Sometimes at night too. I had never bothered about what he was writing,’
It is said that death drops the final curtain on a person’s life. But often it is death that reveals the things one has concealed. I used to ask Anna, ‘Why don’t you talk about your childhood, the place where you grew up, your mother, brother?’ He would laugh it off. ‘What’s there to tell? I’m not very educated. What can I say?’
I used to think that maybe people did not think much of Anna because he did not have a great deal of formal education. But i knew that he was a far greater man than many so-called educated people.
How else could he have raised us the way he did? Seventy-five years ago, it was customary to sacrifice innocent seven-and eight-year-old girls in child-marriage without a thought to their future. To let a girl over eight remain unmarried was considered most sinful. In such times, this man educated not just one but all five of his daughters until they received their university degrees. That too living in a small village, within a closed society, ignoring the taunts and harassments of the community. If he hadn’t had the conviction and courage, all five of us would have ended up in village homes, sitting around the kitchen fires, surrounded by a gaggle of children. Almost illiterate!
I skimmed through Anna’s papers. ‘Aai, how beautifully Anna has written!’ “When you were at school in Hingane, he would write to you every week,’ Aai replied. ‘I remember that before sitting down to write, for two whole days, he would walk up and down in the garden, planning the letter. Then he would begin to write. Even if I was busy in the kitchen, he would stop me and read aloud what he had written. After that, he would post it right away for you.’ I could hear the pride in her voice.
‘And when we received Anna’s letter at Hingane, Superintendent Gadgil would take the letter and paste it on the bulletin board. And he would write in large letters, “Girls read this”!’
As I said this to Aai, everything came back to my mind.
I began to read Anna’s papers. Anna’s neat, dearly familiar script rose before my eyes
We Khares hail from Guhagar. In those days, each village in Konkan was associated with a different Brahmin family. The Karves were from Murud, the Baals from Ladghar, the Kelkars from Cavha and the Tilaks from Chikhalgaon. So in that sense the Khares
belonged to Guhagar. My childhood was spent in Guhagar. I had heard that the Khares used to be very wealthy once upon a time, but in my childhood our means were rather modest. We owned a little land and harvested rice and millet.
I loved our house and (he courtyard. Many trees flourished in our yard: tall coconut palms, leafy betel-nut and mango trees. The glimmering sea stretched beyond. As children, we romped and played on its pristine white sands. Our household had five members: Baba, Aai, my younger brother Sadu and I, and a distant cousin of my father, Atyabai. I was very fond of my mother. She was very fair-skinned, of small build, and had beautiful features. Her hair was very long, thick and jet black. When she washed it she would let it hang loose to dry; I would run towards her and wrap myself in her silken locks. She would laugh and push me away. Then when her hair dried, she would braid it and coil it on her head in a huge khopa, and decorate it with gold moodh and angraphul, which were traditional hair ornaments. Then she would wear a nath in her nose and admire herself in the mirror. How gracious she looked! Everyday Aai took me to the Lakshrni Narayan temple. In the adjacent lane, the medicinal herb adulsha grew in abundance. Even today the smell of adulsha evokes memories of Aai. The first six or seven years of my childhood were filled with happiness.
I had barely turned eight when my father died suddenly. I was not close to my father; in fact I was a little afraid of him. He had a reputation of being hot-headed, but he managed the house and the farm efficiently. Baba used to draw water from our well using the water-wheel; we would be amused by its creaking, yet musical sounds. He was painstakingly careful in watering all the trees with the well water. Sometimes he would break open coconuts with a scythe. One day the scythe accidentally slipped and injured his hand. He began bleeding profusely. Aai asked me to fetch the vaidya. The vaidya lived just two doors from us. He came right away and tied a poultice of some sort on my father’s forearm. After that he came every day and dressed the wound. But on the fourth day, my father had a lockjaw. His body went into contortions. His screams and spasms frightened Aai and Atyabai out of their wits. Sadu and I screeched in terror. He suffered terribly and died in just two days. I can still visualize his body, bent like a bow. The details of the following few days are hazy. But the long walk to the cremation grounds and the sight of his dead body in flames made an indelible impression on my mind. For days on end Aai sat by herself in a darkened room, crying.
One morning Atyabai said, ‘Sarumawshi Vaidya has invited you and Sadu to her house.’
I took Sadu to Sarumawshi’s. Sarumawshi was busy cooking and said, ‘Ah, you’re here? Go, sit out there. We will eat very soon.’ We went to the sitting room. Vaidyakaka sat on the floor on a mat, leaning against rolled-up bedding, studying the astrological signs in the Panchang. I le looked up at us. ‘Come, sit here. But be quiet!’ Sadu and I sat down. There was a large printed paper in front of Vaidyakaka. I craned my neck to look at it. Vaidyakaka asked me, ‘Do you want to read this?’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a newspaper.’
This was a new word. I asked ‘What’s that?’ ‘Have you heard of Agarkar?’ I shook my head. Vaidyakaka said, ‘Agarkar is a very learned man. He produces this paper in order to inform people about what’s happening. Such a paper is called a newspaper. Agarkar’s newspaper is called Kesari. Come on, read it. Let’s see if you can understand it. Read loudly.’ He leant back on the bolsters. Although I had read books, I was a little overwhelmed-by the size of the paper. I held it clumsily and began reading, stumbling over the words. It said that somewhere a five-year-old girl had been given in marriage to a nine-year-old boy. I didn’t understand that fully. But Vaidyakaka listened to what I had read and exclaimed, ‘Son of a bitch! You leave that. Read the editorial.’
“Where is it? In that cupboard?’
‘Silly! The editorial is the part printed under the banner “Kesari”.’
In the beginning, as I read, I stumbled over the words. But later my reading improved. Vaidyakaka asked, ‘Do you understand what you’ve read?’
‘A little. But I do want to read some more.’
Vaidyakaka smiled broadly. ‘Good! Come every Sunday. Come and read to me.’
Just then Sarumawshi appeared. ‘Come, come, eat. Everything is ready.’ As soon as we had finished eating, we charged out. Sadu shouted, ‘Dada, Dada, let’s race.’ We arrived home neck to neck. In our front yard, the tamarind pods had been spread out to dry. Sadu loitered around them. ‘Aai, Aai, we’re back,’ I called out as I entered the house. But I could not see her anywhere in the house. ‘Atyabai, where is Aai?’
‘Maybe she’s out at the back.’
But Aai was not there either. I searched the courtyard at the back of the house again. I could not see Aai anywhere. Then I looked in the house again. Inside, the door to the room traditionally used by a nursing mother was partially closed. I pushed it open, calling out, ‘Aai, Aai’. Only one tiny window let a little light into that dark room. Aai sat sack-like against the wall, with her head bent. She was crying. I ran to her. ‘Aai, what’s happened?’ She hunched over even more. ‘Aai, please don’t cry. Tell me what’s wrong?’ She looked up. I screamed, ‘Oh, my God! Aai! Aai! Your hair! Where’s your hair? What happened to your hair?’ Aai began sobbing loudly as if her heart would break. I could not bear to look at her. I ran from the room with tears streaming down my cheeks. Aai, like other widows of the time, had been forcibly shorn of all her hair. She was no longer the mother I had known all these years! That day my childhood was lost forever.
I went to school for two more years. I completed the second standard and then the third. I continued to visit Vaidyakaka regularly. He would ask me to read the newspaper to him. He used to talk about the news it contained and tell me stories about Tilak and Agarkar. Often he would say, ‘Like them, one must do something useful with one’s life. Otherwise what can we say? “I was born, I existed and I died.” What’s the use of living like that?’ I would listen, not knowing exactly what to make of it. This was my fourth and last year in the school since it taught only that far. I passed the annual examination. My future stretched bleakly ahead of me. My teacher advised, ‘If you want to learn more, you must go to Bombay. There is no future for you here.’ But Sarumawshi protested, ‘Don’t put ideas into his head. He’s barely eleven. How can he go to Bombay? Four years’ learning is enough. Now Antya, it’s time you took the load off your mother.’
And so I immersed myself in work. There were the household chores, the animals to tend, and the farm and land to take care of; this became my only world. Even my visits to Vaidyakaka were not as frequent as before. Whenever I went there, Vaidyakaka’s
pronouncements would make me feel that I’d turn out to be as dumb as the animals I tended. One day I went to my friend Ganu Bagade’s house. Ganu was engrossed in drawing. As I watched him, something blossomed in me and along with Ganu; I began to draw the Naagnarsoba, Jiwali and other religious symbols. Most of the neighbourhood boys did not have many things with which to occupy themselves, and they aimlessly roamed the streets all day. I too spent countless hours in their company and would get home late, although that meant I had to face Aai’s wrath. One day I came home later than usual. Aai announced, ‘Antya, this Saturday we have to go to Sarumawshi’s. Don’t go out.’
‘Why, what’s happening at Sarumawshi’s?’
‘We’re going to see a bride for you.’
I was stunned. Angrily I said, ‘No! Never! I don’t want to get married/
Then do you propose to spend all day loafing around like this?’
I stared at her in annoyance.
‘Antu, I cannot tolerate your behaviour. I have told Sarumawshi that i will bring you.’ With this announcement, she went inside. I could not contain my anger. I left the house, walked down to the sea and sat on the beach. My mind was in an uproar. Finally I shouted aloud, ‘No, I shall not get married.’ I was struggling with myself, trying to decide what to do. Vaidyakaka had made me aware that there was a different world out there. I wanted desperately to explore that world, to do some of the things he had talked about, to be different. But what if Aai did not let me? What if Sarumawshi was insistent? Let her insist! I would not get married, and if forced to, I would leave home. But where could I go? Vaidyakaka always said, ‘Go to Bombay.’ How would I get there? Where would I live? How would I survive? And what if Aai became ill here? Well, Atyabai would take care of her.
I returned home with a million thoughts racing through my head. Aai was waiting for me. ‘Where did you disappear like that?’ I did not respond. The clothes were drying on the line in the middle room. I took them off the line, rolled them up in a bundle, took my cap from the hook where it was hanging, and placed it on my head. Aai watched me.
‘Antya, what’s going on?’
‘I’m leaving home.’
‘Whaaaat?’ she cried in a tearful voice.
‘I’m not going to marry. I don’t want to be a problem for you. So I’ll leave home.’
Aai was aghast. She burst into tears. ‘Antya, don’t leave me, please. You don’t want to get married? Well then we will forget about it. But please don’t go.’
I was very dejected. The days stretched endlessly before me. I went about my daily chores and spent the remaining time at the Narayan temple. The temple was being readied for the up-coming nine-day Navratra festival. I got involved in decorating and painting the temple; and spent many hours listening to the kirtans being sung and lectures from the Puranas. And, along with the other young men, I played the game of dhumal. I had almost given up visiting Vaidyakaka. On the eighth day of the Navratra, he appeared at our door. ‘Ananta, will you come with me to the temple?’
We reached the temple and paid homage to Lord Narayan. Vaidyakaka walked around the temple. On its outer wail he noticed a large drawing of Maruti carrying the mountain Dronagiri, done in red-stone.
‘Who drew this? It’s very good.’
I replied, ‘I did.’
‘You? I didn’t know you had this talent.’ He grew serious. ‘Ananta you are smart, you have the drive. Why do you waste it here? Listen to me. Just take a bold step and go to Bombay! Go get some more education. Right up to the Vernacular Final! I know you will make it. Or else, study art. Then you will get a job easily. But don’t waste your life here.’
Vaidyakaka’s words gave me a new impetus. Once again, I began dreaming of Bombay, planning what I would do. As soon as I got a job, I would take Aai and Sadu to Bombay. I could think of nothing else. But I knew that once again, Aai would forbid me to go. One day, I mustered up my courage and announced to her, ‘Aai I’m going to Bombay. I will study hard and get a job. Then I’ll take you and Sadu to live with me.’
I had a difficult time convincing Aai. She did give me permission finally, but I could see how worried she was. Over and over again she asked me, ‘Will you really take us to Bombay?’ ‘I will, I promise. How can I survive without you?’ The day before I left, Aai and I talked late into the night. I laid my head in her lap and she ran her fingers through my hair. My .heart was full of love for her and I was at peace. I don’t know when I fell asleep. When I awoke, Aai was sitting beside me.
‘Anta, I have prepared some food for you. Take it with you. You’ll need it on the way.’
I had a bath, packed some clothes in a cloth bag, and ate a simple meal of metkoot and rice. Aai served a spoonful of curds in my palm; that was the custom when anyone was leaving, a ‘comeback-soon’ gesture. I slurped the curds, touched her feet asking for her blessings, and turned to go.
‘My child, go safely. Send us a letter as soon as you reach Born-bay.’ She placed two dhabbu coins in my hand. Tears streamed down her cheeks. I felt my own eyes moisten. The flood washed away all the bitterness I had felt. I turned round and left.
I focused all my efforts on trying to reach Bombay. That meant crossing the Veldur Creek, then the Dabhol Port, after which I would be in Bombay. I started on the road to Veldur. Till I reached the Arya Hills, I felt strong as well as brave. Once I crossed those hills and lost sight of Guhagar, however, I was overcome with the feeling that I had left my home behind me forever. I was all alone in the world. I continued on determinedly though, pausing occasionally to wipe my tears. And then my chappal snapped. I looked at the rough road ahead. How would I proceed now? I sat on a large rock at the roadside, took a strip of cloth out of my knapsack and tied my chappal to my foot. I took a few tentative steps, worried, what if the cloth gave way? Just then I heard a rattle. A bullock cart came by and someone called out, ‘Anta, is that you? Where are you going?’ Ganu Bagade’s uncle was in the cart. He inquired about my plans. Then he asked me to climb into his cart and took me as far as Veldur Creek. I touched his feet; he turned back. As I stood there alone, I noticed an old man standing surrounded by his baggage, mumbling to himself helplessly.
‘Ajoba, I’ll carry your things.’ I helped carry his baggage and put it in the ferry. He paid my fare for the ferry and dropped me at the Dabhol pier.
I realized then that whatever simple acts of kindness I had performed without any expectations had been returned many times over. So very many people had gone out of their way to be kind to me!
At Dabhol, I was standing by a tea shop. Seeing my torn chappal the shopkeeper said, ‘My boy, how will you walk with this chap-pal? Let me fix it.’ He got it repaired and also gave me plenty to eat. On my part, with coloured chalk, I drew a sketch of a cup and saucer, complete with steam coming out of the cup, on the side wall of his tea shop. He was very pleased and packed a parcel of food and saw me on my way. From there, I climbed the hillock and reached Dapoli. Travelling through Khed, Mahad, Rewas and Dharamtar, I finally reached Bombay. My journey was lightened by (he kindness of several strangers; some gave me food or a paisa or two, others showed concern.
I crossed the creek and got off on the Bombay side at the ferry wharf popularly known as Bhaucha Dhakka or the brother’s docks. I was mesmerized by the sights of the ‘Bombay’ about which f had heard so much. I had never seen so many people in one place. Everyone seemed to be in a tearing hurry. Porters in red uniforms rushed about straining to push carts laden with baggage. Carriages, horse-drawn trams and buggies vied for space. I could only watch, overwhelmed by the confusion and the noise. It was getting dark and I had to reach Girgaum. I had to get moving because I didn’t know which way Girgaum was. But I had heard that many of the folks from Konkan were living in Girgaum; there I would surely find someone to help me. I stopped several people and asked where Girgaum was. Some were in a hurry and didn’t give me clear directions; others didn’t bother to answer. The streets were dimly lit with kerosene lamps. I could not see the road clearly. Finally f reached Girgaum, after having lost my way several times. By this time it was fairly late at night; I was bone weary and starving, i drank water from a roadside tap, worried where I would spend the night. The shops on both sides of the street were closed. Each shop had a wooden plank in front of it instead of steps. I put my cloth bag down on one of the planks, rested my head on it and drifted off to sleep.
I was rudely awakened by somebody prodding me in the ribs. Startled, I sat up. It was a uniformed policeman. I stood up. He fired questions at me. I was frightened out of my wits. ‘Get going! If I find you here tomorrow, watch out!’ He warned me and strode away. Now, what was to be done? Where should I go? The problems I faced remained unresolved. I was wide awake now, but I remained there; it was still the middle of the night. With the break of dawn, I sat up. From time to time, tears would well up. The sun rose in the sky. Just then a man appeared. Seeing his stern face and piercing eyes, I began to tremble. ‘You, there! Why are you sitting here?’ I had lost all power of speech. Unlocking the shop he said, ‘Get lost! You can’t sit here. Don’t you have someplace else to go?’
‘No? Then why the hell are you here? Where are you from?’
Just then another man appeared. He was the owner of the shop next door. It was a tin shed whose walls were made of jute sackcloth. He spread his wares: peppermint candy, fresh cashews, papads, kurdyas and other foodstuff from Konkan, and said, ‘Good morning Phatakmama. Looks like you have a visitor. Where’s he from?’
‘Says he’s from our Guhagar.’
‘Be careful. These boys run away from home and then there are terrible problems.’
I spoke fervently, ‘No, I have not run away.’ I turned to Phatakmama. ‘I swear by God Narayan. I have come with my mother’s permission.’
My invoking ‘Narayan’ touched a chord. Narayan is the temple deity of Guhagar. Phatakmama began to look less doubtful.
‘You do sound like you’re from Guhagar. Why have you come here?’ he asked in a softer tone.
‘To go to school.’
‘School? How far did you learn in Guhagar?’
‘I have passed the fourth standard. That’s as far as that school teaches.’
Phatakmama picked up the broom. I went forward. ‘Please, allow me to sweep. Let me have the broom.’ I was trying to throw myself at his mercy. He gave me the broom. just then the bhatji from the nearby tea shop brought him tea in a kettle. Phatakmama asked, ‘Did you eat anything last night?’ I shook my head in reply. Mama asked the bhatji to fetch another cup of tea and something to eat.
What do you plan to study?’
‘I want to pass my Matric.’
‘How old are you?’
‘You silly boy, if you go to school now you will need seven more years. You’ll be twenty-one by the time you are a matriculate. By the way, have you brought your school certificate?’
School certificate? I faltered. When I left Guhagar I had given no thought to my school certificate. I shook my head.
‘Then no school will admit you!’
Just then the bhatji appeared with tea and pohe. Mama asked me to eat. He looked at me, contemplatively. I ate the pohe and drank the tea with great gusto.
The bhatji left with the empty dishes. Phatakmama began dusting his sewing machine, I took the duster from him and started cleaning the machine. He became engrossed in sewing. From time to time he looked at me. I sat on the plank outside, afraid of the next step. Where would I live? How would I eat? I knew that poor students depended on the generosity of kind people for their meals. They made arrangements to have their meals, with different families, once every week, by turn. I asked Phatakmama, ‘Do you think I’ll be able to make arrangements for my meals, here?’ ‘We’ll see. Anyway, come home with me today.’ Phatakmama closed the shop for the afternoon. ‘Let’s go,’ he said. I followed him.
Phatakmama lived in a chawl in Kandewadi. This chawl, like all Bombay chawls, was three stories high. Each floor had about ten two-room units; a common balcony linked them with a common toilet at its end. When we reached his place, I waited outside in the balcony. Mama went to the kitchen. He talked for a long time with his wife. Then he came to the front room and asked me to step inside, ‘Sit over there on the stool. Listen carefully to what I have to say, and then decide.’
Phatakmami stood listening from her position at the kitchen door. Mama said, ‘Since you don’t have your certificate, going to school is out of the question. You will survive only if you learn a trade. I will teach you tailoring. Are you willing to learn?’ I saw a ray of hope when all doors seemed to have closed. Yet I could not speak. I just stared at him. Mami asked, ‘My boy, what’s your name?’
‘Listen, Anta, you can learn in a year if you set your mind to it. Now that you’ve come this far, you might as well get something out of this.’
Mama said, ‘Now hear me out. For one year, you will do all that is needed in the shop and learn to stitch clothes. I will not pay you during this period. You will live here and eat with us. If at the end of one year, you have learnt well, then I’ll pay you. Then you can fetch your mother and brother and set up house. Does that seem reasonable?’
Mami added, ‘In any case, my husband needs a helper at the shop. Your problem of food and shelter will be solved. Stay here and help me around the house. Is that acceptable?’
My dreams of schooling and of studying art crumbled. But what was the alternative? How could I live in this city? At the very least, I would become a tailor. I would learn to sew, then earn money and fetch Aai and Sadu. Phatakmama was waiting for my answer. ‘Yes,’ I responded, ‘I’m ready to learn.’
From that day, I began living at Phatakmama’s.
The new world in Bombay, dirty and congested, was in sharp contrast to my beloved Konkan. The house and the compound in Konkan had been very spacious; here, three tiny rooms formed our cramped quarters. In Konkan tall coconut trees swayed in the breeze. Parrots, sparrows and cuckoos warbled and sang in shady mango trees. Here, the only greenery was provided by tulsi plants growing in pots hanging in the balcony. The tulsi has religious significance and was therefore grown by each household and worshipped every day. The raucous cawing of crows and the incessant cooing of pigeons provided background music. Instead of a stream of fresh milk from one’s own cows, here we had to be satisfied by the milk brought to us by red-capped milkmen from suburban Vasai. The ten families on our floor shared the washing place at the end of the balcony. It had only three taps. Every morning, I was rudely awakened at dawn by the chatter of the people who lined up at the common latrines. Later in the morning, the pounding footsteps of people rushing to work created a racket on the wooden stairs.
Gradually I became used to all this. I no longer had time to dream about Konkan. In this hectic world of Bombay, there was the relentless pressure of chores, from the minute I got up. I was always uneasily aware that I was dependent on the good graces of Phatakmama and Mami. I tried to lighten Mami’s workload as much as possible. In the morning, before going to the shop, I swept the floor, filled water, washed the clothes and cleaned the dishes used for tea and for the morning meal. At the shop, I would sweep and clean, fill drinking water in the earthenware pot, and place flowers and incense before the little wooden shrine and the images of the Gods. By then Phatakmama would show up. He would greet customers, take their measurements, and tell them when their clothes would be ready. I watched him and learnt a lot from him on how one treats customers. His shop must have been well-known for his customers were of all sorts, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. Mama was an expert at his work and began teaching me, step-by-step. In a few days I began to understand how to measure, how to cut the cloth, how to stitch it and make buttons and buttonholes. When the clothes were ready, it was my job to deliver them to rich customers. At the end of the year, when I had learnt to do all these things, Phatakmama said, ‘Ananta, you have passed your tailoring test with flying colours.’
I was justifiably proud of myself, but made no response. I realized that now Mama would start paying me and I would be able to fetch Aai and Sadu, and together we would set up our own house. On the first of the month, Mama gave me ten rupees. I was very happy, but one thing still bothered me; here, I had nothing to read. At night, our neighbours in the chawl used to gather in the balcony. But since all they did was gossip, I didn’t feel like joining them. In Guhagar, Vaidyakaka’s discourses had been like a candle lighting the darkness. I missed them terribly.
One day, a horse-carriage stopped outside our shop. A gentleman named Raosaheb Rege alighted from it, and entered the shop. Phatakmama was a little flustered to see him. Rege was probably our most important customer. He had once been the headmaster of a high school and had very good connections. In those days, because education was not very widespread, there were very few high schools. So the headmaster was considered very important.
Raosaheb had shown up in person at the shop as he needed a Parsi-style long coat in a hurry. Phatakmama was contrite. ‘You shouldn’t have taken the trouble. I would have come to your house.’ Saying this, he began taking Raosaheb’s measurements. As he called out the measurements, I wrote them down. Raosaheb noticed me and was curious. Mama praised me enthusiastically. Raosaheb stared at me through his thick-lensed glasses. Perhaps he could not see well.
‘You’ve passed the fourth standard, have you? Hmm, you can read well then, can’t you?’
‘Oh, very well indeed!’ Mama interjected.
‘My eyes bother me, but read one must. I could surely use a lad like this. I don’t need him daily, a couple of times a week will suffice.’
Phatakmama said immediately, ‘Ananta will gladly do it! Right Ananta?’
I nodded happily.
I went to the Reges that Saturday, a holiday. Raosaheb asked me to read an excerpt from a book.
‘Well, that’s good! You’ll come regularly, won’t you?’ I said, ‘Oh, yes I will.’ Raosaheb continued, ‘I don’t see very well. Sometimes I have to attend meetings on weekends. Will you accompany me?’ I was happy that a new world was opening up to me. I went to the Reges faithfully for a month. At the end of that month, he gave me three rupees. What I had learnt from him during that month was, however, far more valuable than those three rupees. I used to read the newspapers to Regesaheb. His favourite newspaper was Sudharak, edited by Gopal Ganesh Agarkar. Agarkar used to be the editor of Kesari. But now he had parted company with his friend Bal Gangadhar Tilak and started his own newspaper. All this I gradually learned from Regesaheb. He would often speak eloquently about Agarkar. I was learning far more than I had dreamt. One day, when I went there as scheduled, I was surprised to see Regesaheb teaching his eight-or nine-year-old daughter in English. His wife, however, did not like this at all and remonstrated. But Regesaheb asserted, ‘Women must expand their world beyond the rolling pin, broaden their horizons and sharpen their intellectual tools. Isn’t that so Chandu?’ And his daughter Chandu happily agreed. I watched this whole interchange in amazement.
I used to accompany Raosaheb Rege on his walk to Chowpatty Sea Face. On the way, several people would stop to talk to him. In those days Chowpatty was not a favourite promenade place as it was surrounded by warehouses and the beach was marshy. Right on the road to Chowpatty, however, was the elegant mansion of Mangaldas Nathubhai, with a beautiful garden in front; this was Raosaheb’s favourite place. He and his friends would gather there and they would discuss and argue fiercely about the issues of the day. I would stand on the sidelines and listen. Raosaheb was a teacher after all. He was an expert at using examples to drive his point home. One of his contemporaries was Agashemaster. Raosaheb argued with Agashemaster with great fervour. Agashemaster was always firm in his conviction. ‘We must unite and stand shoulder to shoulder to fight the British. Then self-rule will be a matter of course. Social reforms can come later.’
Raosaheb responded calmly, ‘Look here, this topic needs deeper discussion. Let’s see, come and take your evening meal with us tomorrow and we’ll thrash it out.’
Agashemaster screamed as if stung by a scorpion. What are you saying? I’m a Brahmin, you’re a Saraswat.’
Raosaheb remained calm. ‘You are wrong. We Saraswats are the true Brahmins. We have received the blessing of Goddess Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning. You’re just Bhats, the priests. But let that be. Tell me, if you and I cannot sit side by side for a meal, how can we stand shoulder to shoulder to fight the British? That’s why, in my opinion, first let’s get rid of this nonsense about caste, then talk of gelling independence.’
Raosaheb had another favourite meeting place. That was the office of the newspaper Induprakash, the leading newspaper of that time. Government servants, the leaders of society, the elite would gather there and discuss and debate local and regional events dear to their heart. They used to criticize and ridicule Tilak’s newspaper Kesari. Tilak was politically a revolutionary, wanting to throw out the British, while according to Induprakash, British rule was God’s gift to Hindustan. I was a Kesari fan. But I realized that in the Induprakash office it was not politically prudent to be on Tilak’s side. Once I slipped, said something in favour of Tilak, and was promptly reprimanded.
There was an imposing statue of Queen Victoria in the central square of the Fort area, in downtown Bombay. It was in the midst of a road that hummed with activity, day and night. Someone tarred the face of that statue, twenty or thirty feet from the ground. To climb that high and escape without leaving a trace was a remarkable feat! Naturally, this extraordinary bravery filled common people with pride. But there was uproar in official circles. The authorities could not find the person who had committed this act of treason. And try as they might, the tar on the statue’s face could not be removed. The British government was furious and retaliated; young men were taken from their homes and beaten. The Induprakash group railed against Tilak. It alleged that such despicable ads were the result of Tilak’s teachings; Tilak had inflamed the younger generation to such madness by his writings. Soon after this there was a plague epidemic. The inhuman methods that the British officers used in stamping it out created a lot of discontent among the people. As a result, a young man named Damodar Chaphekar shot dead a British officer named Rand. Later it came to light that Chaphekar was also responsible for the tarring episode. People were electrified by Chaphekar’s courage. Damodar was the son of Haripant Chaphekar, the kirtankar at the Kala Ram Mandir at Thakurdwar. He used to join his father at the kirtans. I used to attend that kirtan regularly, so I had seen Damodar and had also spoken to him. When I heard Damodar’s name, I felt he was standing right there before me and forgetting my surroundings, I exclaimed, ‘Bravo, Damodar!’
At that moment I was in the Induprakash office, in the midst of a group of people. They were stunned into silence. Rege Raosaheb roared, ‘Fool!’ I was frightened. If looks could kill, I would have been dead on the spot. ‘If the police knew about this, you would be flogged till you came to your senses!’
From that moment I was afraid and from then on, I kept my thoughts to myself.
This was an era of many new, progressive ideas. The Prarthana Samaj was established as a part of a movement to reform the Hindu religion. Its building was elegant, clean, and neat with polished chairs, benches, and a marble altar. I was very surprised when I saw this. Was it possible to pray here? I pictured our temples with their chaotic, freewheeling atmosphere. The worshippers here were prominent people, stylish and resplendent in their starched clothes. Their conversation was about reforming society, critical of our Gods and rituals and of the noise and confusion of kirtans and bhajans in our temples. I was confused. I did not feel that all this criticism was valid. But increasingly I felt that there must be change.
Tatya Takle, the Konkani shopkeeper next door was caustic in his comments. ‘These half-breeds! Already half-way towards becoming Christians! They call this a prayer! What nonsense! Who ever heard of praying sitting on chairs and benches? Dressed in such finery? They are just playing games to please the British.’
I listened to both sides. I had no conviction in this matter, yet I felt I had to do something, and this was always foremost in my mind. As I frequently accompanied Raosaheb, word of our tailoring shop spread and we got many new customers. Phatakmama gave me a raise and told me that I should fetch Aai and Sadu and set up our own home. I took his advice, rented a two-room house in Phanaswadi and fetched Aai and Sadu. Soon, yet another of my dreams was fulfilled. I found out about a drawing class, which was held every afternoon from one to three, during which time the shop was closed. I began attending the class and was exhilarated that I was finally able to study art.
I was content. Aai and Sadu were with me, I was in the company of good people, I was reasonably well established and was finally studying my favourite subject. Now, from the neighbours’ point of view, I was a ‘good catch’. In those days, when a girl turned six or seven, her parents would start eyeing eligible bachelors. ‘Anantrao, when are you getting married?’ was the constant refrain. Phatakmama also urged me to get married. Aai of course was very eager to see me get married and settled. She had been ready to marry me off, back in Konkan, when I was just fourteen.
Now I was past twenty, but I paid no attention to my mother’s pleas. Actually, I often wondered what it would be like to have a wife; I had begun to be aware of young ladies. Hut I was also ashamed of these yearnings, and a little afraid, too. I received many marriage proposals. But they were all from parents of very young girls, barely seven or eight years old. To marry such a young girl was out of the question. I had decided firmly that I would not marry a child-bride. One day, one of Phatakmama’s friends from Awaas, Lakhoo Nana Shintre came to find a match for his daughter. Phatakmama suggested my name. Lakhoo Nana watched me for a few days and told Phatakmama that he approved of me as a son-in-law. When Phatakmama asked me, I said, ‘If the girl is fifteen or sixteen, I’m ready to see her.’ Everyone poked fun at me. ‘Girls are married at seven or eight. Where will you find an unmarried fifteen year old? A marriageable fifteen-year-old girl is surely a widow.
But I was firm in my resolve. Aai and Phatakmama were annoyed. ‘Social reform is not for people like us. The rich, the privileged can afford the luxury. We will become complete outcastes.’
I consulted Raosaheb Rege. He sided with the others. ‘Don’t go’ after what you cannot get. One must behave according to one’s status in life. Be realistic.’ I realized then that even for people with progressive ideas, there was a vast difference between preaching and action. Then what chance had someone like me! So, with reality being brought home to me, I agreed to see the girl at Awaas.
At Awaas, the Shintres had a large house with a large courtyard. I was reminded of Guhagar. Lakhoo Nana Shintre called out to his daughter, ‘Varu, Varu!’ From the branches of the nearby champak tree came the response, ‘Yes, Nana?’
‘Where are you? What are you doing up in the tree?’
‘Gathering flowers, Nana.’
‘First come down here. You can gather flowers later.’
Varu scrambled down the tree, stood in front of her father, and shook out her parkar—the traditional floor-length skirt, which she had drawn up between her knees and tucked behind her, at her waist. ‘Yes, Nana?’
‘This gentleman has come to see you. You want to get married, don’t you?’
Varu blushed deeply and ran inside. She was very fair, slightly snub-nosed, but slim and smart-looking. She was only nine, I was twenty. But since I was helpless, I said I approved of her and we were married.
Anna’s writing had abruptly stopped here. I scanned the remaining pages. They were blank. ‘Aai, had Anna ever read this out to you?’
‘Never. What does it say?’
‘Anna came to see you when you were in Awaas. You had climbed a tree—.’
Aai broke out into laughter. ‘I almost fell out of the tree that day.’
‘Do you remember those days?’
Tour wedding. Then how Anna brought you lo Bombay, how you lived with Aaji, Sadukaka and Anna in a chawl—.’
‘Oh, yes, I remember it all clearly. You know, I didn’t like that tiny house at all. When I was leaving my parent’s place in Awaas after the wedding, Aai blessed me, held me close to her, and said, “My child, be happy at your in-law’s place. That will be your home from, now.” When I saw the rooms in the chawl in Bombay I couldn’t believe my eyes. I felt like a caged bird. Why had Aai sent me to such a small house? You remember the Awaas house? It was so large! There was a courtyard both in the front and at the back, with trees all around us! We had so many coconut trees that we stored coconuts in a tiny room off the back porch. We grew our own rice and stored it in a large bin near the front door. So many happy memories! I spent many pleasant hours playing all sorts of games under our shady mango trees with the girls in the neighbourhood. Sometimes, in the afternoon, the women who went from house to house with their grinding stones would come. They used to pound and grind the household grain under Aai’s supervision; our house would hum with their chatter and the khhadd-khhadd khhadd-khhadd sounds of their grinding stones. My friends and I would try to drown out their sounds with our songs as we swung on the creaky old swing in the inner room when it became too hot to play outside. Oh, it was so much fun!
‘And the place in Bombay? Don’t ask! Each family in the chawl had just two rooms, the front room and the kitchen behind it. The kitchen had a little mori where we could wash our hands, but for everything else we had to go to the common facilities at the end of the long common balcony outside the rooms. Our drinking water, too, came from the taps at the end of the balcony. The room at the front had barely one window. Anyone who passed by along the balcony outside could peep in. There was very little privacy. I didn’t care for it at all.’
Aai’s reminiscences were interrupted by a call, ‘Mawshi, I’m leaving.’
‘Wait! Bhiva is getting ready to leave. Let me give him something to eat. He must be hungry.’ Aai went to the other room. I wondered, if, at that tender age, she understood what was meant by marriage? She returned in a moment. ‘Aai, did you realize what a husband was?’ She laughed. ‘I didn’t have the faintest idea. You know at Awaas I used to often go with Aai to the Mangalagaurs that were celebrated in honour of new brides. All the women and girls would gather. We used to sing and play games. I remember this one particular game. We would dance around a newly married girl, pretend to capture her and would subject her to this inquisition in song:
How’ll you escape?
My saasu beats me.
She does the right thing.
My saasra beats me.
He does the right thing.
My deer beats me.
He does the right thing.
In the game she would try to escape the beating of her mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother in-law, in fact, all her in-laws, while the girls encircling her tried to prevent her from escaping. The game ended if she managed to break through their cordoning arms. So my image of a saasar was a place where everyone beats you all day.’
I hesitated to ask Aai the question that nagged me. ‘Did Aaji ever beat you? And Anna?’
‘Oh, no! Never! Saasubai was very gentle and loving. She’s the one who gave me my new name—Indu. She said it was her favourite name. And I did everything just like my mother had taught me. Your father too, never once spanked me.’
‘What did your mother teach you?’
‘Aai said, “Never sprawl in front of elders. Never answer back. If your Saasubai is working, plead at once, ‘Please rest, let me do it.’ And never refer to your husband by name. Always use the honorific terms for him, Ikade or Tikade’.” Of course, from the time I was very young I knew that a girl uttered her husband’s name only when her friends or relatives teased her and forced her to. And then the name would only be uttered in an ukhana, a specially composed rhyming couplet. I remember how brides blushed as they pronounced their husband’s name, even in the ukhana. Of course I didn’t take your father’s name, but I didn’t say “Ikade, Tikade”.’
Just then, my cousin Appa appeared with a question relating to her milk business. ‘Mawshi, have the Chavans paid last month’s bill?’
‘No, they haven’t paid for milk these past two months. We must do something about it.’
‘I’ll send Maruti.’ Appa turned towards the front verandah. Aai talked about the headaches of the business. I went home after a while but thought continually of Aai’s reminiscences. Aai’s only free time was in the afternoon. The rest of the day she was engrossed in work. But the treasure trove of her memories had just been opened before me. I decided I would explore it fully in the afternoons, and I showed up two days later. I had the Kesari with me. Aai was lying down, resting. She carefully sounded out the word Kesari. I began laughing.
‘Aai, do you remember when we were young you used to write out our alphabet for us?’
‘Of course, I do. You used to cry and ask me to write the letter “Ba” and I’d do that. Your Anna had taught me the “Ba” in Bagala. That’s all I remembered.’
‘Aai, do you remember how Anna taught you?’
Aai laughed, ‘Sure, I remember it very clearly. Ka for Kamal, Kha for Khalbatta, Ga for Ganpati, Gha for Ghadyal, Cha for Chamcha. He drew a picture of simple things for each letter of the alphabet. I remember these by heart.’
‘And what about the nasal characters?’
‘No, he didn’t teach me those.’
I realized that Anna could not have thought of a word beginning with the Marathi nasal letters. There are no words starting with these characters.
‘His teaching me caused such a furore! I was not at all prepared to learn. But he threatened that if I did not learn he would send me back to my mother’s place.’
“What do you mean?”
‘In Bombay, all the men folk in the chawl would be at work during the day. Sadubhauji and your Anna would also be out working. In the afternoon, Saasubai used to rest What was I to do after all my chores were done? There was no one to talk to, no one to play with. The only person of my age in the chawl was Thaki Barve. She lived in the rooms near the washing place. But she was terribly afraid of her mother-in law, who kept a strict watch on her. So I ‘used to wander around in the balcony, listening to the women gossip.’
“What did the women in those days talk about?’
‘Exactly as they do now! You know how the women gossip at the Tulsibau temple. So and so has missed a period, someone is expecting, A’s husband beats her, B’s husband has remarried, daughters-in-law and mothers in-law complaining about one another—just the same kind of things. One day the women were giggling because Babutai and her husband closed their doors and windows in the afternoon. I was terribly innocent and didn’t understand why they were giggling.’
“When I went home I asked, “Saasubai, why do Babutai and her husband close their doors and windows in the afternoon?” I didn’t realize that at that very moment your Anna had unexpectedly entered. He heard what I said and announced, “Indu, you are not to mix with these women from now on.”
‘ “But how is she supposed to spend her time?” Saasubai objected.
‘I’ll take care of that” Your Anna left immediately and returned with a pencil and slate. “From tonight, I’m going to teach you to read and write,” he said. I protested, “I don’t want to learn. At my mother’s place women do not learn.” Your Anna became very angry. “Maybe there they do not, but here you must learn.” Obstinately, I shook my head. He continued, “Gather your clothes and start packing. You don’t want to learn? Fine! Ill take you back to your maker. Right (his moment!” I was terribly frightened. Tearfully, I said, “I’ll learn.” That very night after I had cleaned up after dinner, he began teaching me to read and write. He was a very good teacher and I myself began enjoying my lessons. Now in the afternoons, I sat in the gallery practising the alphabet.
‘One day as I was doing this, Thaki appeared stealthily and whispered, “What are you doing?” I started telling her in whispers how to write the letters of the alphabet. To no avail. Her mother-in-law appeared and gave her one thump on her back.
‘”I have told you a hundred times not to associate with this heathen household. Get inside! God only knows what kind of neighbours we have. A man who calls his wife by her name. All day long if s Indu this, Indu that. Teaching her to read and write. Tell him, if he wants to make his wife a maddam, go ahead, but don’t corrupt our girls.” I was in tears. Thaki was my only Mend. She and I used to meet at the washing-place. She used to complain about her mother-in-law while I praised Saasubai. I would tell her everything—what Saasubai and I had cooked that day, what else we had done. But now Thaki was lost to me. Her mother-in-law began watching her with an eagle’s eye.’
‘People in the chawl were scandalized by these teaching sessions! They began passing by our window on purpose, to catch us in the act. Real peeping toms! Their loud giggles would almost drown out the sound of the lessons; I used to be terrified, but your Anna used to say calmly, “If they laugh, they’ll show their teeth. You study! If you’re to be an outcaste, so be it! They’re not the ones feeding you, right?”’
‘Aai, were people really so opposed to women’s education then?’
‘I can’t begin to describe it! I, too, gave up mixing with these women, talking to them. My housework and learning to read and write became my only life. Your father, too, stopped visiting the neighbours, or even striking up a conversation; but just busied himself in his work. But one day, suddenly, Saasubai died. What they call the heart or something. After her death, Sadubhauji began saying, “I just don’t like it here. I miss Guhagar and I want to go back.” I don’t know what the two brothers discussed between themselves but Sadubhauji went back to Guhagar. I missed Saasubai acutely, and felt terribly lonely. And then there was another terrible calamity.’
‘Oh, no! What happened to our family next?”
‘Not just us! It was widespread and affected everyone. Rats began dying all over the town. “Plague, Plague”, was the cry heard! So many people were infected by this terrible disease. Lumps would appear in their armpits or groin. And they would have such high fever that in a couple of days, death was inevitable. We were all terrified. Very little was known about this disease. There were no known remedies for it. So many people died that the dead were hauled away by the cartload. If someone left home there was terrible anxiety whether he would return alive. But Balutai, as always fate intervened on behalf of your Anna.’
‘Why, what happened?’
You know those drawing exams your Anna had passed? The big saheb asked him if he would go as a drawing teacher to the Mission School at Ghodnadi on a monthly salary of Rs.30. Your Anna looked at the situation around us and agreed to go. Thirty rupees was a large sum in those days! Not to mention the horror of the plague in Bombay. I was very relieved. The saheb gave him instructions on how to get to Ghodnadi. We packed our belongings right away! We couldn’t wait to leave Bombay!’
A few days later I was on my way to Aai’s. Near Tilak Bridge, I spotted a firewood and coal shop. As I needed coal for the water-boiler, I entered the shop. Sitting on a wooden bench behind the huge weighing scales was an old man. His face was wrinkled, his moustache drooped, thick glasses framed his face and a handkerchief was tied around his head. His face looked familiar. On closer scrutiny he turned out to be Deshpandemaster of Ghodnadi!
I touched his feet and addressed him as Kaka, just as I used to do as a child in Ghodnadi. ‘Kaka, I’m Balu. Kharemaster’s daughter. From Ghodnadi.’ He stared at me through his thick lenses. ‘Do you recognize me?’
‘Oh, yes! You’re the one who used to hide behind your mother saying you had a tummy ache when I would come to teach you. Right?’
I broke into a smile. That’s me all right! Only a few decades older. But, Kaka why are you sitting here in a corner?’
‘At this age, Balu, usually all your companions have left you. Only these logs of wood wait for you, to bid you farewell on your final journey. They will also provide all the warmth I will need on that journey.’ hp laughed whimsically. ‘So I sometimes come here to make friends with them!’
This was his way of speaking which used to endear him to Anna. The two had been very close at Ghodnadi. And suddenly I realized that Kaka would be able to fill in many details about Anna. I asked him, ‘Kaka have you heard the sad news? Anna passed away.’
‘Oh! is that so?’ he responded easily. “Well, one chapter is over.’ He rose and we started to leave. For a while we were both silent. Then he spoke to himself. ‘He was a good man.’
‘Kaka, I’m thinking of writing Anna’s life story. Will you help me?’
“Yes. Ill gladly do that.’ He halted and leant on his stick. ‘But when you say you’ll write his life story, what do you mean? Will you put him on a pedestal? Make him out to be a God?’
I didn’t respond. We continued walking. He said, ‘Look here Balu, it’s true that Anna was a good man, but like others, he was made of flesh and blood. Can you keep that in mind when you write? Some will call him “good”, others will vilify him. At Ghodnadi, Shankar, the goldsmith, had not one good word to say about him. Will you have the strength and judgement to sift through the truths and the untruths? Annamaster had one great quality, he had an alert, watchful mind. He had no illusions about himself. When you write about him, forget that you are his daughter. Look at him as you would at anyone outside your family, say a long-time neighbour. If you’re ready to do that, come to me, ask what you will. I’ll gladly tell you.’
I saw Kaka to his home. On the way to Aai’s, I began thinking about what he had said- Write about Anna and forget the closeness of our relationship! Look at him like an outsider? That would mean placing him among other people, in the conditions in which he grew up. That means, things would have to be imagined on the basis of the history of those times, characters and situations would have to be conjured up. In short, I would have to resort to writing fiction. Well, what was wrong in that? I remembered having read somewhere that a novel was history poured out of the mould of molten imagination. So I would sketch out Anna’s life more like a novel. Freely mixing fact and fiction. With these thoughts, I began writing.