That Sayani Bhua was really christened “Sayani” is what I believe. It is also possible that the name became hers because of her very correct, mature and “perfect” ways! Who ever dubbed her so was an expert at choosing names.
Even in childhood they say, she was the personification of punctuality and meticulousness. A pencil once bought was used till it grew so small that the stub could not be held , for the pencil did not dare to loose itself or break unnecessarily. A rubber bought in the fourth standard was used in the ninth till it crumbled away.
As the years passed her capabilities became legendary to all the women in the house. One could not think of Bhua without thinking of rules and perfection, she was meticulous to a fault. Father used to quote her as an example at every stage of our lives, so much so that we all prayed that this paragon of virtue remained where she was, happily married. May she never have to come home O’ Lord ! we could not think of our lives being regulated by her. One day father came up with an idea . My heart sank when he suggested that I go and stay with Sayani Bhua for the rest of my education. I refused saying that higher education was not part of my scheme of life. But father thought otherwise. All my protestations were pushed away and I was coerced, cajoled and pleaded into agreeing with him. Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe!
There was no doubt about it , Bhuaji welcomed me with open arms . But I who had grown up with stories of her stern rule failed to notice the warmth . However, Bhuaji’s husband whom we all called Bhai saheb was an endearing person but the most adorable of all was her five year old daughter -Anu .
There was no laughter in the house. It struck me that the whole family bowed down to Bhuaji’s rule. They were sort of mentally imprisoned by her personality. Their movements were mechanical. No one thought individually, no one spoke unnecessarily, a burst of spontaneous laughter was unheard of .At exactly five in the morning the household was awake . One hour of exercise in the open maidan was followed by a cup of tea or milk . Anu sat down to study immediately after this and Bhai saheb read the newspaper or handled his office files . At nine bathing time began . Bhuaji kept out sets of clothing for everyone, there was no choice in the matter . No one was ever late for breakfast or work.
Only my soul knows how difficult it was for me to fit into this regime .I swallowed rebellious tears , bit back retorts and tried to comply with Bhuaji’s rules . But I felt sorriest for little Anu .She had becme so dead like a regimentalised puppet. She had never known the excitement and chatter of infancy. Rigid rules and absolute obedience were all that made up her life . The atmosphere of the house soon killed my own laughter and sense of humour . Life became one drab routine
Bhuaji had been married for about fifteen years , but everything about the house and its contents still looked brand new . The glass and chinaware looked as if they had just been bought even though they were used daily. She washed them all herself No one dared break anything . Only once, be it recorded, an earthen surai was broken. The guilty party was a young lad who did odd jobs around the house. He was beaten mercilessly for his crime. Bhuaji could not tolerate breakage. She often commented to Bhai saheb “god knows what would have happened to this household if I were not here to take care of things .” At such times I always commented to myself that whatever else may happen if Bhuaji weren’t around one thing was sure, we wouldn’t have become puppets .
Then one day, inspite of all Bhuaji’s care and control Anu fell ill . It was a terrible time . The fever lasted well over a month . All kinds of medicines were tried to no avail. Bhuaji was really frightened .Anu grew pale and yellowish. Frankly I felt that the child had” fear bacteria” running through her veins , eating up her wish to get well. Fear of her mother because she could not comply with the order to get well made her more ill.
After a number of doctors tried treating the child , the general medical opinion was that Anu be taken to the hills for a change of air . They also said that she should be kept happy and her every childish whim be catered to . Little did the doctors know that the child had no childish desires . She only knew of rules in life and not of any individual likes. Bhai saheb was in a dilemma. He knew that with Bhuaji around the child would never get a chance to speak out. He spoke to the doctor privately and it was soon decided that Anu must be separated from her mother till she got well. Bhuaji was upset but she dared not go against the doctor’s verdict .
The trip to the hill station was planned. Bhuaji took over as usual. First clothes for Anu and Bhai saheb were packed, followed by shoes, socks, warm clothing and even blankets and vessels.As each article was packed Bhuaji would hold it up and tell Bhaisaheb to be careful and not lose it.” This frock, it cost seven rupees, don’t lose it and this cup, it’s part of a costly set, keep it safe. Listen, this glass may seem inane to you but take care. I had it for fifteen years , see that it doesn’t get scratched.” The list was endless. Bhai saheb listened patiently and nodded.
After the painful packing session Bhuaji came to Anu , the list of does and don’nts went on and on.What Anu should eat, when and how the menu was laid out. How often she should be taken out for walks or drives , when and what clothes she should wear – it was all listed out by Bhuaji. At the end of it she turned to Bhai saheb and said in a low tremulous voice” Take care of yourself too, take your milk and fruits on time.” Then Bhuaji rallied her emotions and said in a firm loud voice “I wonder how you will carry on without me to take care of things.” This was followed by another low voiced — “ Write daily, don’t forget.”
Then came the day of parting . Bhai saheb and Anu left with a servant accompanying them. Bhuaji held Anu close and wonder of wonders tears ran down unchecked. Then for the first time I felt that there was a hidden warmth in her stony heart. As long as the horse-cart was visible she stood at the door . When it vanished round the corner she stood motionless for a while.The next day things were back to normal. The rules, strictures, they all returned.
Bhai saheb wrote daily. His letters were full of Anu’s recovery and her antics. Bhuaji too wrote without fail. Her instructions were reinforced with every writing. The dates of her letters might differ but the contents remained unchanged. I often wondered why she wrote at all. Bhai Saheb could have stuck one of her letters on the wall, it would’ve sufficed. Of course I dared not say so.
About a month passed like this and then one day suddenly, Bhai Saheb’s letter did not arrive. The second day passed, and still no letter came. Bhuaji was anxious. She could not concentrate on her daily chores. The strict household
routine grew slack, and thus passed yet another day.
Bhuaji could hold back her thoughts no more. She slept in my room at night, I saw that she was very restless, tossing and turning, disturbed by dreams, sometimes crying out loud. Her tears came like the bursting of a dam. All her feminine, maternal fears came forth like a storm. Years of pent up emotion flowed unchecked. She kept telling us about her nightmare-where Bhai Saheb had returned alone, his eyes red with weeping. Bhuaji broke down and wept. Nothing would comfort her. I too began to worry about Anu’s well being. Bhuaji’s listless face upset me.
Affairs had reached such a state when the servant came running with Bhai Saheb’s letter. Impatiently and with trembling fingers Bhuaji tore open the letter. I held my breath, watching the expression on Bhuaji’s face. Suddenly she cried out and the letter fell from her hands. I froze. I could not think further. Anu’s angelic face floated before me. Now what, is Anu really no more? Is it possible? I gathered strength enough to pick up the pages of the scattered letter and read
“My dear Sayani,
I don’t know how to word this letter. How do I tell you the sad news, my dear you must take it bravely. Life is full of tragic incidents and our ability to face things courageously is the greatness we bring to it. This world is ephemeral. Whatever is created is wiped out one day. Perhaps it is with this truth in mind that the saying goes in our land, to cling on to the worldly is to cling on to sorrow. In spite of all your instructions and my care, we lost. Call this our misfortune, what else can it be. That it had to happen through my hands…”
My eyes filled, my hands trembled, the rest of the letter became unclear. It was the first time in my life that I was actually reading a letter about somebody’s death. I skipped the rest of the contents and reached the last part of the letter, it read:
“Be brave my queen. Whatever happened we have to bear it. Try to forget and forgive. Yesterday at four in the evening the two cups belonging to your fifty rupee set fell from my hands and broke. Anu is well and we hope to return soon.”
For a minute I stood dumb-struck. I could not understand what had happened, and then realization sank in. The gurgling of laughter began softly enough, but it soon grew loud and beyond my control. How I convinced Bhuaji of the truth I do not know. But when the facts finely dawned on her, she was laughing and crying all at once. I wondered at her. Bhuaji who had beaten up the servant boy for breaking a five anna surai was laughing when her fifty rupee set was ruined. She laughed as if the heavens had opened up. As if she had found great tressure.
Translated from Hindi by Usha Menon
MANU BHANDARI. Noted Hindi writer of fiction.
USHA MENON. Teaches at the All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram.
Her doctoral work was on Sri Aurobindo. Interested in women support activities.