Bab Yelap had been extremely busy since early morning. He’d finish one chore and start on another at once, yet his work didn’t seem to get done.
He’d woken up early that morning and without waiting even to wash his face had swept the square courtyard outside his house clean. He’d gathered the broken vessels, bits of wood and other rubbish together and stacked them by the hearth covering the whole heap with a couple of tattered sacks. He’d uprooted the stakes that bore the clothesline and tossed the bundle of dry clothes on to the loft in the middle room. Then, having washed his face and swallowed a mouthful of tea he set off on foot to the market at Neturle. Only one bus plied along that route, and who could rely on that! It was sure to let you down when you needed it most!
His wife had drawn up a long list of things, he’d memorized it carefully and now he was back from the Bhat’s shop with his purchases.
“Ghanni! Here … everything you asked for! If anything is missing …tell me now! I won’t step out of the house if you tell me later on …!”
He never forgot a single item on her list, nor did she ever send him back to the shop once he got home … he knew that, yet he said this every day.
“Have I ever sent you back …?” Ghanni smiled.
“On the sixth night after an infant is born even Brahma might forget that he has to inscribe what its future will hold … but I …once I memorise something, nothing will make me forget that!”
Ghanni was also in high spirits that day, just like her husband was. She’d woken up at the crack of dawn and swept the house and yard clean. It was drizzling outside but did she have the time to wait for it to stop. Today it would rain in torrents, fit to flood the place she mused as she swept up the mango leaves that littered the courtyard.
Having cleaned the house, she began to smear the floor with cow dung and sure enough it took her a very long time for this was the largest house in the clearing by the temple, this large four roomed structure that belonged to Bab Yelap. A whole lot of people would gather here today, like they did every year. Didn’t she have to clean it up, then? This was a festival, holy rituals would be conducted in the chowk before the house in the evening. A quick swipe with a dung smeared rag and everything would be clean and pure. Who knew what unclean people, who had dabbled in inauspicious activities had passed that way?
Having poured a few buckets of tepid water over her body she set off, still in her wet clothes to fetch water from the spring. She was eager to start cooking… it was just the two of them who ate every day. Today there would be others… besides, it was a festival! The woman who cleaned the temple, the Devleen, would be sure to drop in… some vadas would have to be ready by that time!
Ghanni had soaked two kudavs of parboiled rice to make shirvoli for the evening meal … but she had to finish cooking lunch before she sat down to grind the rice. If the batter was ready anyone could steam the dumplings and press them through the mould to get fine rice noodles. The members of the family and people from all the four vaddos would be gathering here, like they did on this day every year, and she had to offer something sweet, hadn’t she? Besides, the elders had always declared that the religious discourses and hymns must be accompanied by something to eat.
When the seven year old Gokul from the Chincheypann vaddo was married to the fourteen year old Bab Yelap she had been renamed Rukmini and brought into this house. From that day, more than sixty years ago, she had thrown herself wholeheartedly into preparations for this festival every year. In the early years Mami would supervise everything and tell her what to do. But she died when her last child was born and since then the responsibility of being the ‘Ghanni’ of the household fell on Rukmini’s shoulders and she tackled the task with gusto.
Bab Yelap was the eldest of Mami’s brood with eight brothers and three sisters following. She had twelve children in all, five of whom were born after Rukmini entered the household. Her father-in-law passed away soon after his wife did. The Big One, the snake that lurked in the undergrowth got him when he went to gather grass… and Rukmini had the added responsibility of playing mother to her husband’s brothers and sisters. Five of these boys and two of the girls were older than she was, but none of them had been married off before their mother died. so it was Ghanni who worked side by side with her husband and with the help of the village elders got them settled in life.
The household bustled with joy and activity as each new bride overturned the measure of rice on the threshold and stepped into Ghanni’s home. New fruit sprouted on the family vine. She ran the house and supervised the work in the family’s fields and orchards, no one ever went against her word. The little ones, in fact, doted on their Big Mother and snuggled up to her every night like calves around a cow.
Years passed and Ghanni’s house could no longer accommodate the swelling ranks of the family. One by one, each brother built a house for himself and moved away. The houses were all close by, on the land that had belonged to their ancestors. Finally only the two of them remained in that house …. Bab Yelap and Ghanni.
Ghanni was upset to see her flourishing household emptied in this fashion but Bab Yelap consoled her as best as he could.
‘This is the way of the world … it’s for the best,’ he said. ‘What does it matter if they’ve moved away? As long as each one cares for the other’s joys and sorrows….’ But Ghanni knew that despite his brave words her husband was as upset, if not more than she was.
The brothers moved away but their children flocked to Ghanni’s house and were with her at meal times in the early days. Gradually, they stopped coming and she didn’t get to see the ones who went to school for days on end. Most of them were married now and busy with families of their own. It was the same with the brothers and their wives. In the begenning they’d drop in at the slightest pretext to see how the couple was faring; these days they hardly appeared on the scene. But this was one day in the year that every member of the household would gather in Ghanni’s house.
This was the ancestral home of the Yelap family and tradition demanded that every member of the clan gathered here on the full moon night in the month of Ashaad. The ancients had decreed that even the littlest ones should sit awake through the night listening to the hymns and religious discourses that were conducted on the chowk.
Bab Yelap’s brothers came over with their wives and children, so did sundry uncles and cousins. in fact the whole village seemed to gather on Yelap’s chowk. It was commonly believed that anyone who chose to sleep at home that night would be reduced to penury, that Maha Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, would turn away from the village. So, except for the elderly and the bed ridden, everyone moved towards Bab Yelap’s house.
The sun was high up in the sky when Ghanni set the rice pot on the hearth and Bab Yelap, freshly bathed, gathered the implements of worship together in a small basket and set off for the temple of the Payak. He opened the temple door and swept the place clean. Filling a pot with water from the spring, he bathed the deity that was seated astride a horse. Some of the water splashed on the scores of tiny horses heaped at its feet — images that had been offered by devotees in thanksgiving for favours received. I must have offered at least six or seven of these figurines as I prayed for the well being of my brothers’ children, he suddenly thought.
The foot high image of Shantheri etched in black stone stood to the right of the Payak and behind the image was the huge termite mound that rose above the roof of the temple. Bab Yelap could remember when the image was installed, way back in his childhood. The image of the Payak was installed a few years later.
After his father died, the responsibilities of conducting religious ceremonies and the ritual worship of the deities in the temple had fallen to his lot. He performed the ceremonies with a great deal of faith and fervour. Yet, of all the deities in the temple it was Shantheri that he revered most. This goddess is more powerful than all the gods, he thought. Even the story narrated during the Asadi rituals states that it was from her body that the whole universe was created.
Sometimes he thought he saw the goddess in Ghanni’s person … as he stared at his wife with her traditional nose ring and the horizontal smear of kumkurn on her forehead, with the flowers massed in her hair and the profusion of gold chains hanging down to her navel, it was the goddess Shantheri’s face that swam up before his eyes.
After bathing the idol, Bab Yelap bathed the large stones that embodied the spirits of Adi Purush and Jalmi, the founders of the clan. He worshipped each deity with flowers and kumkum. Lighting a fire in the small hearth that stood in the Payak’s temple, he began to cook the ‘vaadi’ or porridge that would be offered to the gods.
Bab Yelap carried the ‘mhal vaadi’ or main offering to the embankment by the temple. He stuck the stake that embodied the Ghodak or divine Horse into the ground and worshipped it with a sprig of tender karmal leaves, kaajal, kumkum and flowers. Shielding his eyes with his hand, he placed some of the freshly cooked porridge on a strip of karmal leaf before the deity. Then, folding his palms reverentially, he called upon the various gods and goddesses and the spirits of his ancestors to watch over the family and the homestead, the cattle and the land. Placing strips of karmal leaf with the naivedya before each deity he finally picked up the basket and the cooking pot and set off home.
The temple of the Payak stood amidst the fields in the middle of the village and Bab Yelap’s house was on the embankment barely ten steps away. Yet, every year, as soon as he finished the rituals the rain would come pouring down almost like an expression of god’s bounty. Bab Yelap would return home soaked to the skin.
The rain would come down in torrents all that night ceasing only at daybreak as the storyteller on Bab Yelap’s chowk wound up his discourse. Each man would wash his face, drink some of the tea that Ghanni offered and then set off for his field with his pickaxe on his shoulder to make the first ritual stroke before tilling his land.
But nothing of the sort seemed to be happening this year. Bab Yelap was home already. Even the slight drizzle that had started a while ago seemed to have stopped. The sky was overcast but not a drop of rain fell to the ground. He stood on his porch and gazed up at the heavens, O, Lord of the skies, we are your innocent children. if we have erred in any way, forgive us! Destroy what is impure, pour your bounty on this earth so that the soil is soaked with your showers!’ he prayed.
Ghanni was kneading the dough for the savouries when he walked in, crestfallen.
“What’s the matter? Didn’t you finish the rituals?” she asked.
“I don’t know what’s gone wrong, Ghanni, but the Lord of the skies seems angry with us this year.”
Morning turned to noon but there was no rain. Bab Yelap could barely swallow a couple of morsels at the afternoon meal. As dusk fell people began to gather at Bab Yelap’s house. All the members of Ghanni’s family came from Chincheypann, at least one member came from Naneghotan, Vasade and Kegdevado–these were the four little settlements that formed Kajur village.
These vaddos were surrounded by thick vegetation and were almost hidden from view. But occupying pride of place in the village, like the comb on the cock’s head was the Devulvaddo, the centre where all rituals and auspicious ceremonies were performed and it was Bab Yelap who was responsible for all that
Out there on the chowk the men were gossiping in high spirits while the women chattered and giggled within the house as they helped Ghanni with the cooking. Only Bab Yelap remained ill at ease, his eyes wandering to the sky again and again. What could have gone wrong this year? Shantheri mar, we are your children, show us the right path, he beseeched.
The men on the porch were getting ready to sing the hymns but before that the whole gathering would exhort the gods and pray for their blessings. Suddenly Bab Yelap noticed that the minstrel or storyteller hadn’t arrived. Every year he arrived before the day began to wane because the rituals had to start at dusk. Today the shadows were beginning to lengthen, where could he possibly be?
These youngsters can’t be bothered about anything! His father was never late for any ritual throughout his life. now that the responsibility has shifted to him- see what this youngster does!
–I hear he’s rather fond of drinking, too. Wonder why these young men who have a part to play in these rituals get bogged down in this way!
–So the musicians are ready and waiting, it’s the main singer who’s nowhere to be seen!
Ghanni was ill at ease, too. She’d placed the oil lamp, the coconut, the measure full of rice, the-betel leaves and all the items needed for worship in a corner of the Chowk, yet she bustled in and out calling out to her husband from time to time.
It was eight in the evening and the people were getting restive. Bab Yelap who had been immersed in deep thought throughout the day, lost his patience at last.
“Go on, look for that man. If he’s lying in some ditch, pick him up and bring him here!” he ordered.
Before the group of men carrying flaming torches could set off, ‘however’ someone announced that the storyteller had arrived. Everyone gathered around him as he stepped in, ‘Where were you all this while? You’ve held up the rituals, the whole village has been waiting for the ceremony to begin…’ Bab Yelap pushed his way through the crowd with Ghanni close behind.
“My son is ill….”
“Your son has been ill for a month. It’s not as though he’s suddenly taken ill today”.
“Should the whole village stop its rituals and ceremonies because your son is ill? As it is, the gods seem angry with us…”
“And you’re so upset by your son’s illness that you’ve gone and got drunk!” Ghanni exclaimed with all the righteousness her age could command as she smelt the liquor on his breath.
Instead of cringing at her words as he usually did, the man struck at her like a venomous serpent,
“What would you know of such worries, Big Mother? To know that you would have to give birth to a child of your own!” “Ith…th…all!” The cry seemed wrenched from the very depths of Bab Yelap’s being. The whole crowd was stunned…all of a sudden someone lashed out at the storyteller, soon others began to rain kicks and blows on him and the air was filled with angry voices and screams of pain.
At first Ghanni didn’t know what was happening, she was too stunned by Ithal’s words. For the first time in her life, someone had pointed out to her, that too in such a public forum, that no child had ever been born from her womb. Surrounded all the time by various nephews and nieces and grand children, and by the families of her brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, she had never felt the absence of a child of her own nor had Bab Yelap ever expressed regret about this.
Ghanni recovered her composure in a moment as she saw the predicament Ithal was in. Throwing herself into the throng she called out to her husband who stood stupefied like a monkey tied to a stake,
“What are you staring at? … get that youngster out …. He might die…!”
The men who were beating Ithal drew back as Ghanni pushed her way to him. He had been beaten severely, blood streamed out of a deep gash on his face. He huddled on the ground “Baba.. …baba”… “Ithal! Are you alright? Not hurt too badly, are you?…oh mother! So much blood! These men are chandals … get up now … let’s put some medicine…come!”
Ghanni’s heart seemed to burst and tears gushed from her eyes.
“Wretched creature that I am… if I hadn’t butted in none of this would have happened! But what I said was for your own good…. You youngsters do such things and then it affects your health … what is it to us? Our old bones are almost ready to be cremated… you youngsters are the ones who should be well…!’
Watching from one side Bab Yelap felt that the moisture laden clouds in the sky had finally cast their bounty on the earth in the form of tears gushing out of Ghanni’s eyes. What did it matter if she had no children of her own; all this earth and all the creatures on it seemed to have taken shape in her womb!
Translated from Konkani by Vidya Pai.
JAYANTI NAIK. Belongs to the contemporary generation of young women writers who have made a mark in the field of fiction and folklore. She has published two anthologies of short stories Garjan(1989) and Athaang(2002). A widely translated writer, her short stories have appeared in translation in Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi, Marathi and English and have been included in collections. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like Maand Sobhann Award for folklore in 1999 and T. M. A. Pai Foundation’s literary award in 2003. Jayanti Naik has been on the Konkani Language Advisory Board of Sahitya Akademi and is a member of the Konkani Language Advisory Board of the Bharatiya Jnanpeeth.
VIDYA PAI. Noted writer and translator. Has worked tirelessly for bringing Konkani writing into the mainstream.