Full Circle- A Story

Rajesh K. Jha


The whistle of the train was drawing away. She had to hurry up now before Hari Babu arrived home from his work in the next ten minutes. Perspiring and immersed in a cocktail of smells, he would fling aside the faux leather bag he has been carrying to his office for, only God knows how many years. He will sit on the veranda and take off his kurta-pyjama, wrap his lungi around the waist and wipe off sweat from his body using the thin khadi towel kept in readiness at the armrest of a plastic chair. He would switch on the fan but most often it would be of no use even if there was electricity since the voltage became abysmally low in the evenings. However, the symbolic turning of the ceiling fan was greatly reassuring to Hari Babu. It was part of his daily utterance in the evening to express the hope that voltage would improve in the night. Most of the days he was proved wrong, but he remained optimistic nevertheless.

This streak of optimism or foolish optimism, if you agreed with Mausi ji’s description of Hari Babu, was the main source of grouse she had against him. Quite often, it led to bickering between the two which was resolved after Mausi ji went to bed without bringing dinner to Hari Babu and the poor Sunaina or Soni, as she was known across the mohalla, had to bring the thali for both of them. Mausi ji would scream at Soni, asking her to leave the room at once. Soni, having been a witness to such events for many years now, knew what to do. She would leave the thali and a glass of water in the room and quietly go back to the kitchen. Sometime later, after finishing the evening news on television, Hari Babu would meekly go to his wife and entreat her to eat dinner. He would also be profusely self-critical; blaming himself and his progressive-communist father for inheriting this optimistic, unpractical, streak in him. Mausi ji would turn this side and that on the bed a few times before agreeing to eat, the matter being resolved to her satisfaction in time i.e. before the family soaps on television started. After all, such petty marital pin-pricks cannot be allowed to become a reason enough to miss the serial – poised so very delicately between a scheming daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law struggling to wrest control over the son or husband, depending upon the channel you were watching.

After savouring the serials, Mausi ji directed Soni about the preparation of breakfast in the morning and enquired about the collection of malai from the full cream milk and other sundry issues of the kitchen. She took a round of the kitchen paying special attention to the remaining quantities of valuable items like dry fruits, ghee, etc. and retired for the night to her room. Switching off all the lights except the one 4-watt CFL bulb in the kitchen to let Soni complete the washing of plates and getting the gas stove ready for the morning, Mausi ji asked Soni to eat properly as she seemed to be losing weight. She also bolted the outer door of the house which opened in the space earmarked for a low-roof tiled servant room, where Ghooran
was supposed to be sleeping. However, it would be at least another hour or so before Soni could finish her daily chore and prepare for sleep on the inner veranda of the house.

Soni was hurrying up. The tea must be ready before Mausa ji changed into his lungi and Mausi ji came rushing in to take the tray with tea with two Marigold biscuits for her husband who was a diabetic of long-standing. Five minutes before Hari Babu entered the house, Mausi ji got inside finishing her evening round of gossip and information gathering from other aunties of the mohalla. Neither would she ever miss an evening round-up of the goings-on in the neighbourhood, nor would she allow anyone else to serve tea to Hari Babu.

Soni hurriedly buttoned up her shirt and looked into the palm-sized mirror she kept in one of the drawers alongside plastic jars fully or partially filled with spices like jeera, dhaniya, dried chilli etc. Almost pushing Ghooran out of the damp and poorly lit kitchen, she whispered to him to get busy, attending to the cow which was to be milked half an hour after the sunset. She did not want to raise any suspicion in Mausi’s mind that anyone other than herself had entered the kitchen while she was away in the evening on her public relations cum information gathering sorties. Soni knew that Mausi did not only have a sharp eye for deciphering any goings-on in the kitchen but a sharper sense of smell too, almost like a dog. She quickly started frying the leftover rice and dal from the afternoon and put a strong tadka of heeng into it,
partially to make it edible as dinner, and more importantly to mislead Mausi about the smell in the kitchen.

The outer gate clanked and she heard the quick steps of Mausi ji. She knew Mausa ji must also be around the corner of the road that opens on the main road to the market on one side and the railway station on the other. He never missed the evening train which had the reputation of being the only local train that ran on time. The only problem was that it left the Udalpur station around 4:30 in the evening, which was at least an hour before the official closing of Mausa ji’s office. It was always a struggle for Hari Babu to convince the new officer about his sincerity towards the work and the compulsion to catch the 4:30 local train. Mostly he would succeed as he did not leave the office even for lunch and worked hard to the
satisfaction of all officers who were frequently changed in his department. Finding Hari Babu on his desk at all times pleased the bosses to no end and he had no problems getting the special permission to leave a little early.

However, it deprived Hari Babu of the pleasures of sitting in the staff-union meetings or making little speeches against the bosses and bosses of bosses. He had always fancied himself as a rebel and a fighter for lost causes of the underdogs in the tradition of his father, who was a freedom fighter and later, a Kisan Union activist in the area. He nursed a deep regret in his heart, that had there been a train starting at 5:30 in the evening from Udalpur and running on time, he would have been the most radical leader of his association. It was not destined to be and Hari Babu remained a hard-working, obedient and loveable employee of the revenue department in the district, who was often jeered at and made fun of, by fellow clerks and peons for never speaking in meetings or agreeing to participate in a strike.

He tried to compensate for his lack of social involvement by reading up the magazines and doing something or the other for those whom he thought deserving of help. He would buy the old copies of popular magazines sold on the train at a very heavy discount. The only thing missing in these magazines was the masthead that exposed the contents page of the magazine.

Among the people for whom he regularly bought such magazines was Soni to whom he showed extra affection by buying the English film magazine once a month. Soni waited eagerly for these magazines which she kept meticulously arranged near her bed on the veranda. On days when Mausa ji did not go to the office, she would go to him and clarify some of the meanings of the words in the magazine that she could not make out based on the photograph on the page. Hari Babu was too happy to help her learn English. It was like a bit of a palliative balm to his social conscience he had inherited unwittingly from his father.

Mausi ji came rushing in, casting a furtive glance at the kitchen as if assessing the capabilities of Soni in completing the evening chore to her satisfaction. Soni poured tea into two cups for Hari Babu and Mausi ji and added some sugar to one of the cups. She kept the cups in the tray and lifted it to hand over to Mausi ji. Suddenly, Mausi ji looked questioningly into the eyes of Soni.

“You seem to be lost these days. What’s the matter?”

“Nothing, I was just thinking of getting the vegetables ready for the evening.”

“But you forgot to keep Biscuits with tea. You know well that your Mausa ji can’t have tea without biscuits and if he does, he will suffer the whole night with gas.”

Mausi cast a stern glance at Soni. Soni knew she had made a mistake and Mausi ji was very close to discovering that something was keeping Soni distracted from her routine which was almost like a sacred ritual. She knew keeping silent was the best strategy.

“No…actually…the packet of biscuits finished yesterday”, Sony mumbled.

“You could have asked Ghooran to bring it from the market. He keeps loitering in the mohalla or hanging around in the courtyard. He has hardly any work these days. Where is he? Hasn’t he readied the cow for milking and cleaned its place. Was he…”

Soni’s heart missed a beat. She thought Mausi has noticed that Ghooran could have been around when she was out in the mohalla.

“No… he must be outside getting the cows ready for milking and I thought not to disturb him with market work as he would have taken a long time in the market…” Soni’s heart was now pumping hard and she feared further questioning.

Mausi relented and called Ghooran to the inner veranda and asked him to go running and get a packet of marigold biscuits from the nearby shop.

The iron gate clanked once. Soni understood that Hari Babu has entered the house. She knew that Mausi ji would not be too harsh and questioning with her once Hari Babu has arrived. He would tolerate all the foibles of his wife but would not allow her to treat Soni harshly or scold her in his presence. Mausi ji always blamed her husband for spoiling Soni with undeserved affection and protection. She claimed a special right over Soni since she was HER distant cousin’s daughter. Hari Babu was a docile, caring and adjusting kind of husband on all matters except when it came to something relating to Soni. He had this strange problem of linking certain things to his conscience with which he would not compromise, whatever the consequences. Perhaps, it was the pain of not having his own son or daughter which left a lonely spot in Hari Babu’s heart. Over the last 15 years, when his wife brought the five-yearold Soni from her parent’s home, he had treated her like his daughter, though he never dared to tell his wife not to treat her as domestic help. But Hari Babu had learnt to live with such contradictions in life for the sake of familial peace and a good night’s sleep.

Ghooran came back with a packet of biscuits. As he gave it to Soni, he slightly pressed her hand and his eyes lingered on her for a while. She was still not quite composed, having weathered the questioning of Mausi ji but she realised Ghooran was looking at the middle button of her shirt which was still open. She walked with quick steps into the kitchen and set her shirt right. Perhaps God was favouring her today, she thought. It gave her courage.

“See me after dinner. Be around in the courtyard when I am locking the inner grill of the veranda”, She whispered to Ghooran.

Ghooran nodded without speaking a word. He was like that only. Days would pass but nobody would hear a word from Ghooran. A newcomer to Hari Babu’s house could quite easily think that Ghooran was dumb. However, his eyes did all the talking, especially with Soni. She could make out what Ghooran was saying or thinking just by looking at his eyes which would light up on seeing Soni – always, unfailingly. In the deathly routine of the Hari Babu household, things would repeat in the same time cycle for weeks, months and years.

There was no scope for anything unpredictable and exciting happening and Mausi ji took care not to allow any change to unsettle this household. But the storm brewing in the Soni’s mind was going to change this forever.
***

“I have missed my periods”, Soni whispered as Ghooran stood outside the iron grill against the faint light of the bulb. A slight sense of worry crossed his face, quickly replaced by a questioning eye seeking Soni’s counsel for a further course of action.

Soni had already decided what to do next. Like every other day, she carefully took out the assortment of medicines for diabetes, blood pressure and one for proper sleep, also a few ‘energy’ capsules prescribed specially by Mausi ji based on the knowledge gained from watching advertisements on television. Handing over the medicines to Hari Babu, she kept a cup of hot milk on the side table. She shut the door gently behind her and switched off the lights in the bedroom.

There were still one and a half hours left before the train arrived. Her heart was thumping as she prayed that Mausa ji should fall asleep by then. She knew that Mausi ji would not wake up early tonight. She had kept a small bag ready in which all her belongings could be accommodated. However, time was important in her plan. She did not want to be at the station much before the train arrived for the fear of being recognised by someone on the platform. The last train from the town left around midnight. She had to reach just in time to buy a general ticket and somehow get onto the train.

The train moved away from the platform and slowly picked up speed. The sharp light of the engine seemed to stab the heart of pitch darkness that lay ahead of it. The shrill whistle of the engine sounded strangely eerie tonight, frightening. The first time since she decided to leave Hari Babu’s home, Soni was feeling nervous. Where was she going? What will people think about her in the morning when they come to know of this? How would Hari Babu survive the taunts of Mausi ji about her? Will she be accused of theft? Will the police be informed? True, she had taken out the lightweight gold necklace with a Durga pendant from Mausi ji’s iron almirah known proudly as ‘Godrej’ in the household. This was the only valuable item that her mother had left with Mausi ji for giving to Soni on her marriage day. After all, this was the only memory she had of her mother. Her mind was racked with ominous thoughts and deep
anxiety about the coming day. Squeezed between the passengers on the over-crowded berth, she snuggled up to Ghooran looking for some warmth from his body.

When the cacophony of vendors selling tea, samosa, newspapers and other sundry items woke her up in the morning, the train had reached Jind. Soni and Ghooran quickly gathered their luggage and got off the train. The platform was full of people arriving from Bihar who had come to work in factories and fields in the prosperous state of Haryana. As soon as they came out of the station, they were greeted by people waiting there to pick up men and women for working in their fields, factories, and households. Boleros, Scorpios, Safaris, Trolleys and various other kinds of passenger vehicles waited to pick these people up and carry them to their respective workplaces.

In the jostle between the freshly arrived crowd of labour and their prospective employers, Soni’s eyes caught the attention of a boyish-looking person. Clad in a pair of jeans and tee shirt with a gamchha in the style of a Palestinian Keffiyeh thrown across the shoulder. He looked impressive as a strange combination of a modern city-bred person and a small-time feudal princeling. When he gestured to her, Soni shyly went to his Bolero and sat in the back seat. Ghooran followed her and seated himself in the middle row. Slowly, the Bolero filled up and Satinder took the driver’s seat.

It did not take Soni long to take on the responsibilities that went far beyond her assigned duty of keeping the large compound of the house clean and looking after the cow kept in the inner courtyard. Satinder’s ageing mother Jagodevi found in Soni, a jovial and helpful person for the kitchen work. More importantly, she was the only person with whom the lady, who had become old much before her time, could converse. It did not really matter that a large part of what she spoke in her native Haryanvi was probably never understood by Soni. Her skills in English were also a treasured asset as they made her valuable in reading the address and other small details on several official documents and court papers that came to be delivered by post. Satinder was happy to have company for his mother and a multi-talented person in the
service of his household. Acknowledging her importance, she was allowed to stay in the small outhouse on the premises.

On that night, Soni had come back to her room after finishing the household work. She was just about to go and lie on her cot when she heard a rustle in the background. Assuming that it was Ghooran who came to her cottage whenever he could manage to come without being noticed, she remained unconcerned. However, she was in for a shock when she saw Satinder standing there. Before she could understand anything, Satinder had forced himself on her. Whatever little resistance she could offer was too feeble to make any difference to the outcome. What could she do? Who will hear her shouts and cries in the middle of the vast field where the house stood? Dazed by the speed of events, she could not decide anything.

Satinder came back to her in the night again after a few days. In the faint light of the moonlit night, his face looked worried, body language showing a sign of nervousness.

“I have committed a great sin, a crime indeed. But I seek your forgiveness”, pleaded Satinder.

Soni did not utter a word. The silence was crushing Satinder. He was sweating, shivering, anticipating the worst from her. Soni was quiet but her mind was in a whirlwind. In every split second after Satinder’s fear-laden apology and during her silence, she was thinking of the options. If she went ahead to the police, she could be asked about her hometown and her secret might be out. Maybe the police would think that she had run away from her former employers’ place after committing theft. The options before her left no chance of happiness for her. Suddenly, a thought crossed her mind like the lightning in an overcast sky.

“Marry me”.

Satinder gathered some courage and spoke to his mother about the possibility of marriage with Soni without telling her the context in which it originated. Of late, Satinder’s marriage was one of her major worries. He was approaching 32 years, and still, he hadn’t received a single marriage proposal. The villages around Rajpura faced this peculiar problem.

Eligible bachelors found it very hard to get a match in their community so much so that many of the affluent people in the area sent their sons abroad just to look around for a bride. She had heard of many such ‘foren’ brides in the nearby villages. She did not want her only son to remain unmarried and get into the bad company of local lads who visited the cities and came back late in the night or the next day. Not getting a bride from her community could not dampen her spirit, as it somehow let the family tree survive.

Their marriage was solemnised in the village without much fanfare but with a large community feast. Ghooran was the only person from the side of the bride. He took up the role of her brother and witnessed the wedding. As per custom, Ghooran was given numerous gifts: clothes, cash and a brand-new mobile phone to acknowledge his special position as the representative of the bride’s family. After the wedding, Soni moved from the outhouse to the room reserved for a long time now, for the bride of the family. Ghooran went back to work at the farm with the harvester as the reaping season had arrived.

Not long after, one fine morning, the police arrived at Satinder’s house in a jeep. They had a warrant to arrest Soni for theft and murder of Hari Babu who had died in his sleep due to an overdose of anti diabetes medicine given in the night. Two lady constables flanked her to the jeep.

Soni’s eyes fell on the back-seat. Ghooran was looking intently at her. His eyes gleaming, faint smile playing on his lips and shiny new phone in his hand.


***


About the writer:
Rajesh Jha is a Multi-lingual translator, writer and government media professional. He has translated several books including Orhan Pamuk’s novel My name is Red and essays of V.S. Naipaul. His translations and writings have been published in reputed literary magazines and journals. Some of his writings can be seen on his blog hyphen.blog. He did his MA and M.Phil. from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi before joining the Indian Information Service. Currently he is posted as Special Correspondent for Prasar Bharti in Dhaka. He can be reached at rajeshjha.dhaka@baadrayan


This story was published in the Literary Journal Rhetorica of Lucknow University- Volume 2, Issue 4, 2022

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