Respected Master Sahib,
You may have heard the news already; if you haven’t you probably will, before my letter reaches you three days from now. The results of the elections were announced today.
How did all this happen?
I feel as stunned today as I did that other day, the day I had won. I had never imagined that 1 could be elected to the post of the Pradhan. How had I managed to get so many votes? There had been groupism, party politics. And so much opposition. And yet ….
I understood only when I saw all the women of the village animated by the same sense of euphoria, the tumult of their inner hopes and aspirations reflected on their faces.
I had been told that, being the wife of the 13 Block-Pramukh, it was not proper for me to go to each household and thank my sisters. So I made for the pathanwara. This place stands witness to all our joys and sorrows, Massav.
Ranveer had warned me when he was made the Pradhan that I could not behave like the other women of the village any more, or carry pots on my head like them. And I was told that my presence at the pathanwara, too, would no longer befit my position. After all I was the wife of the Pradhan. When he became the Pramukh, the restrictions had become more stringent. And then I was elected the Pradhan. Ranveer’s status in the village rose further. He was now known to be a generous and progressive individual. Our village rose in the esteem of the neighbouring villages. And I found myself weighed down by the ever increasing restrictions. I had strict instructions to keep a distance from the women in the village. But I couldn’t. Any excuse was good enough to lead me to their midst.
Ranveer had remarked. “You’re still inexperienced in the ways of the world. Someday you too are likely to be as particular about your dignity and status.”
While I was in the pathanwara that day, Isuriya and her goats happened to pass by. I’ve mentioned her earlier. She is the blunt and outspoken one. I remember writing to you about her. She and I, we came to this village as brides on the same day. You were amused, Massav. “Of all the people, the goatherd’s wife for your companion? Wah, Basumati!” you had said. But she’s really sharp. I had barely lifted my veil and glanced around, while she was already familiar with every door and threshold. She’d even formed her own opinions about every villager. It is not in her nature to be diffident or shy. She would refer to the village elders by name. As if she were their great-grandmother. Free from the paraphernalia of caste and family ties.
And that day she called out as soon as she reached the pathanwara. “O … Basumati … Bride of Ranveer! O … Pirmukhani!” The women burst out laughing, “Basumati, here comes everybody’s grandmother. She’s calling for you. Why don’t you respond, Pradhanji?”
Isuriya pushed the goats forward in our direction and soon enough she was with us. She said complacently, “So, you are now the Pradhan. That can only be for the better.”
Nobody paid her much attention.
Waving her stick wildly, she proclaimed, “Ai … listen everybody. Listen carefully. Things will be different from now. We can demand our rights. Now if those spindly little men beat us, shout at us, don’t let us visit home, if they force us to ask our parents for money or they harass us, then snake straight for Basumati. Write it all down. Get them bastards jailed.
“O Bosuniatiya, you will not be unjust like Ranveer, will you”, You would not destroy evidence, would you? That Saleega, he beat me black and blue. I made Leelo’s son write all down as evidence that so I could get a hearing. I had gone and given it to Ranveer myself. That really scared Saleega. He was so scared he didn’t even abuse me for a day or two. But Ranna, he didn’t do a thing about the paper and Saleega turned into a lion overnight : So you were going to send me to jail, huh? Infernal woman, I made up my mind too. So what if I had to sell two goats to … So much for your piece of paper ….”
Isuriya flung away her stick and held out her arms for all to see. She bared her welts and bruises. Nobody was smiling anymore, Massav. The mirth in the air suddenly seemed to freeze.
Gopi tried to lighten things up. Putting on a smile she said, “What are you blabbering about? What if somebody heard you? They’d go straight to the Pirmukhji.”
Isuriya immediately changed her tone, “If somebody heard me? But that’s precisely why I’m saying all this! Ranveer will get his due one day. He’ll stay at home and slave over the fire. While our Basumati, she’ll sign the papers. Give orders. She’ll hold sway. Isn’t that so, Basumati? Tell us truly, aren’t you eleventh-pass and Ranveer ninth-fail? So, who is the intelligent one? No longer can women be herded along like so much cattle. These are the days of equality. After all, Basumati has become the Pirdhan, hasn’t she? Indira Gandhi rules now. Long live Indira Gandhi!
“Silly woman,” scoffed Gopi. “Indira Gandhi’s dead and gone. It’s Rajiv Gandhi now.” ‘Dead? Still that doesn’t change things. Mother, son what’s the difference? It’s the same thing. But tell me, when is the procession?” she asked, the thought suddenly striking her. “When Ranna became the Pirdhan, there was such a glorious procession. So many garlands and flags. They had carried him around the whole village on their shoulders.”
Saroopi rebuked her again, “Mad woman, why do you keep going Ranna, Ranna? You’ll be the first one that Pirmukhji will send to jail.”
She shrugged nonchalantly, “Here, listen to her. Ranna? Why, even your father-in-law Gajaraj can’t harm me. Not even your brother-in-law Panna. Can they, Basumati?” One of the women said, “Why do you bother with this lunatic? O Isuriya, your goats are wandering off.”
“O my god!”
Isuriya ran after her goats, brandishing her stick.
The morning sun must have just touched the threshold. I had lit the stove and placed the tava on it. My hands were covered with flour.
A shadow fell lightly across the doorway.
Before I could see who it was, I heard her voice, “O Basuniati! Basumatiya!”
It was Isuriya.
“The Daroga is sitting with the Panchayat. He’s reading the papers. I swear Basumati, all the Panch are waiting for you.” She could barely contain her excitement.
I called out to my sister-in-law, Kusuma. She said, “You go, bhabhi, I’ll make the rotis.”
The women watched me go, from behind their windows. Maybe it was just to check whether my face was veiled or not.
We met Gopi on the way. “Basumati bhabhi is going to the meeting. Where do you think you are going?” she teased.
Isuriya flashed back, “Be off with you, Gopiya! Let me inform you I happen to be Basumati’s sec’tary. We’re headed for the meeting. You mustn’t waylay the Panch.” “Where are your goats?”
“Saleega’s taken them to graze. He’s finally realised that the days of equality are here. He had better do his bit.” We had almost reached the chabutra when I spotted Ranveer. A few long strides and he stood in front of us. A look of surprise on his face. His mouth drawn in stern lines. “Where to?” he asked.
The answer came from Isuriya, “Pirmukhji, we’re on our way to the Panchayat. Do let us pass, you are in our way.”
He heard her out and then turned on me, “You’d better go home.”
Isuriya was at a loss for words but she recovered soon enough to say, “Don’t try to stop us pass, you are in our way.”
His brow contracted, his eyes became balls of fire. “Basumati, didn’t you hear what I said?”
I could feel my feet shrivel under his fiery gaze. But Isuriya still stood there. I signalled to her that we had best return home. She looked at me with strange eyes and helplessly followed me.
I returned to the kitchen chores. I did not have any answers to Kusuma’s unuttered questions. There seemed to be no respite from this choking frustration that had taken hold of me.
Isuriya could be heard muttering in the courtyard, “Isn’t this the limit? Basumati holds the post but Ranveer calls the shots. Arre! Why can’t he mind his own business? He is the Pirmukh. Why should he interfere with the Pirdhan’s work?”
Kusuma could not contain herself any longer. “Why should he not interfere? “The money has to be extracted from Ramkisan, the potter. Bhaiya must have given his word to Bani Singh. What if bhabhi had gone and a wrong resolution had been passed?”
“Poor Ramkisan, he sold his bullock to Bani Singh so he could have a roof over his head. And that monster Bani Singh. Give my money back, he says. Now where is Ramkisan to get the money from? Sell his roof? Can roofs be sold? Who is to give him justice? The poor can’t expect anything from Ranveer. Had you been there, the potter might have got a fair deal.”
Isuriya dragged her feet homewards. And Massav, I could do nothing about the thorns that kept pricking at my soul.
On his return, Ranveer had done his best to make me understand. “Do you think your being on the Panchayat chabutra would have been in good taste? You must not lose your sense of propriety. Does our status, our standing, mean nothing to you any more?
A woman is respected only as long as she keeps within her bounds. Besides, what would you know about the scheming people in the village?”
Since that day, there were constant summons for the Pradhan. Although the village folk were aware of Ranveer’s disapproval, they would still insist on coming to call me.
It was I that proved to be a coward. Or was it that Ranveer’s image had become so much a part of me, a constant presence that reminded me every time I crossed the threshold. I’m here. Anyway, I’ve been handling this for a while. Why do you need to step out of the house?
My mind would heave violently in response, almost to the point of answering back. But being his wife, my anger remained mute, my words of protest subsiding like froth on boiled milk.
Massav, I had decided that I would not put my signature on anything. Let him do as he pleases.
So Ranveer sat with the register on the charpai. And I was tied up in the kitchen. There was always so much to do in the mornings. He had called for me. Perhaps many times. But I was still not free.
“I’m done with all the writing and you don’t even have time for a single signature?” I still didn’t go.
Irritated he said, “How long am I expected to wait? I have to reach the Block. You’ve kept this hanging for a week.”
I walked upto him, wiping my hands on my sari. “Sign here.”
He uncapped the pen.
“What are you waiting for? You could have signed some twenty thousand times by now.”
I put the cap back on the pen.
Questions rose before me like a thick, dense forest. And I was lost in it. Couldn’t Ranveer guide me out? Was I to be left defenseless amidst these thorns?
As Pradhan, Ranveer must have traversed the same paths. Or had his course been different? Shouldn’t I make an effort to find out? Perhaps there was a way ….
“Ranveer? The labourers had come to me. They said they still haven’t been paid.”
A shocked look came over his face and he stood there staring at me. I spoke on. “The women of the village jeer: Much good your being the Pradhan has done us. You’ve had your lane laid out with stones and levelled. What have we done to deserve this neglect, bahen? The roof might cave in any day. You are the only one who can do anything about it. Who could believe that this was the Pirmukh’s village? Pot-holes filled with water, breeding mosquitoes. Garbage everywhere. Fever and disease in every house.
“If only we had dispensaries and medicine,” I said. “And, the roads ought to be repaired, like in Lalpur. Also, what about the money for the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana?”
Ranveer’s gaze widened further. Anger simmering in his eyes. Darts of fire seemed to reduce me into ashes as I stood there, Massav. My words sizzled and died like drops of water on a hot tava.
“Did the women say this, or was it you? Since when have they begun to talk about their feelings? Who do you think you are? The Pradhan or the MLA?” Lines of ugly laughter distorted his face. “Tch … Tch … Tch. Nobody’s ever asked me anything and you face so many questions!” His voice was dripping with sarcasm.
My hands shook as I silently wrote “Basumati Devi.”
The day I had signed and collected the JRY money, heaven had seemed a distinct possibility. I would constantly dream of shining, spotless schools and pukka roads. Of restoring houses ravished by the rain. Of supporting the unemployed through their bad times. Of providing relief and medical help to the ailing.
An old woman knocked at the door.
“O, beta Basumati?”
By the time I placed the water pot on the stand, Devveer, my brother-in-law had reached the door.
“What is it, dadi?”
“Beta, would you send your bhabhi outside for a minute.”
“Have you come here to call her to the Panchayat?”
“Why else would I call for her?”
“Go away dadi. Bhaiya is not at home. Bhabhi won’t be able to go.”
“Won’t be able to go? Why? Isn’t she the Pradhan? She has to go to the Panchayat.”
“Why do you want to cause a scene at home?”
“Why should there be a scene? Anyway shouldn’t you have thought of this earlier?”
I had reached the door by then. The old woman spotted me. She fell at my feet. “Beti Basumati, try and understand our plight. My son-in-law will not get any leave again for a long time. He’s with the army, you see. Help us get a fair deal, bahu.”
I stood there listening to her.
“Beti. I cannot bear to see my daughter Hardai’s unhappiness anymore. Her father is a monster. We’ve never had the good fortune to lead a quiet life.” Her eyes moistened. ‘Fears streamed down her wrinkled face.
What could I do? I had no choice. Sympathy was all I had and that I gave her. “You’ll get justice, Aroma. Have faith. Why should the Panchayat be unjust?”
I don’t know how I made the decision then. But my feet suddenly fell in step with hers. Devveer was left standing, trying to stop me.
I had the verdict passed. My entire being felt drenched through with a strange sense of ecstasy. A decision taken with seamless compassion and loving uprightness. The chabutra seemed like sacred ground to me, the temple precincts from where I had released the stagnating water; cleared out all the filth with my own hands; prepared the ground as though for new seeds, a fresh garden.
That night Ranveer entered the house quietly. His stern face turned ugly. It seemed as though somebody was gouging away at my heart.
In the still and unnatural calm of the night, I could feel the poison in his voice flow all over me. “If you were so fond of playing lawyer, why didn’t you study law? Even when I had asked you so many times not to … ?’
I could not answer him.
“This daily drama, these scenes day and night! Tell me, when will there be an end to this?” Ranveer exploded into the silence of the house.
I was filled with dread. Waves of fear rose up in me.
Suddenly I spoke up, “I didn’t go on my own. Aroma and her daughter had come to call me. Who doesn’t know about Hardai’s woes?”
“And, you know all about it?”
“Hardai had begged me. She said Ranveer bhaiya won’t understand my plight. Being a woman, bhabhi, you can feel my distress, give me justice. My husband works in the army. He won’t get leave again for another two years. Seven years have already passed this way. My father thinks that the money orders will stop if I go with my husband. So he keeps me locked at home. I am not allowed to meet my husband. Whenever Amma managed to let me out there is an uproar at home. Dirty, filthy abuse. And … I’ve been to the town three times for abortions. Have your ever seen such a father, bhabhi? Save me now, send me with my husband this time. Hardai wept uncontrollably. But still I was not able to recognise the extent of her anguish. All I could think of at that moment was, if only you had helped with the decision of her case.”
His eyes bored into mine, “What kind of decision? Like the one you have just decreed? Do you think Hardai is living in a lawless society? She is staying in her father’s house. She has to live by his rules. Besides, where will that soldier keep her?”
“Anywhere. If they love each other….”
He rose violently, “You mean, I am in their way?”
I was deeply afraid, yet somehow uttered, “But I have heard that she had been taken to influential men … to satisfy their lust ….”
“Really?” he spluttered. “And you haven’t heard how her good-for-nothing brother got a job? Or under whose protection her father openly traffics in cement? Or how they came to build a pukka house? Under whose patronage do you think they’ve been able to live like this? What do I stand to gain from all this?”
“So you know all about Hardai’s plight. Why don’t you free her from the clutches of her father?”
“Well, you’ve freed her. Against my judgement … in this tasteless manner.”
“That was never my intention.”
“Oh? And pray tell me what was your intention the day the police arrested Ramsingh and were taking him away? Whatever possessed you to run after the police van like that, as if you had taken leave of your senses? What must the Darogaji have said? What would the people have been thinking? That the Pramukhji’s wife pulls such cheap stunts! I have never been so embarrassed in my life. If you ever try to create such scenes again ….”
“Look, Ramsingh was not guilty. Why punish the innocent?”
He trembled with rage. “Hear this once and for all. Have no illusions about your position. I was forced to make you stand for the elections. I can’t hold two posts at the same time. I had believed nobody would be more reliable than one’s wife ….”
A poisonous smile passed over his face at the word “reliable.”
It was a cold winter night. Chilly and frigid. I remained sitting outside. I tried to keep warm by drawing myself close. My hands and feet were beginning to grow numb.
My mind was not at peace with itself. I felt that I should, at this very moment, leave this house, this village, this earth, this sky. Go somewhere far away.
I must have spent half the night sitting out there in the courtyard.
In that mist, I could feel a shadow approach me. I looked up, it was Ranveer. He came and sat beside me. He stroked my hair and tried to coax me, “Come inside. Let’s sleep. It’s cold out here. Do as I say.”
Straightening my sari, I sat upright, stiff as a statue. I had no desire to protest. Nor did I feel close enough to him to complain. A sense of alienation took hold of me and I dragged myself into the room.
He kept trying to explain, “Is there any distinction between a husband and wife, silly woman. They live and die for each other. There’s no reason why you should harbour such doubts on account of the village folk. They are all jealous of us, cannot bear to see the husband as the Pramukh with his wife as the Pradhan. They would like to see you roam around on the streets so that even the urchins can make fun of you. They’re just waiting for an opportunity to comment on Ranveer’s wife in the company of strange men ….
You may remember. Massav, you had sent a note for me the day I had become the Pradhan. You had wished me a happy future and a life dedicated to my husband. But you had also urged me to seek new horizons for myself. Challenged me to overcome familial ties. You had written, “Basumati, your courtyard must have a roof of honesty built on pillars of truth, where the weak, the oppressed, the accursed and the defeated will find shelter.”
Surely you too must have been aware of the extent to which this could be possible. But your words certainly stirred me. And I forgot, Massav, that I was as much a part of the system as anyone else, a corrupt system that functions through the oppression of others.
If only I could have been Isuriya, outside the walls of propriety and decorum. Under the free sky. Beyond illusions fostered by the paralysing customs and traditions of genteel society.
If only Ranveer did not hold the trump card of belonging to the aristocracy. Then I could have flown away from the cage that now confines my wings.
It was almost dawn. The chirping of the birds woke me up. Even though no trace of sleep or lethargy remained in me, the uncompromising way in which my wishes had been ignored had left me in low spirits.
I cleaned the stove and lit it.
Ranveer has the habit of drinking tea before cleaning his teeth. I poured out the tea. As I was carrying it to him, there came the sound of loud cries that resounded in the courtyard. Isuriya ran forward like a woman crazed, wailing loudly, “O Darogaji, the truth is ….”
Ranveer stopped her midway. “Where are you rushing to? Don’t worry, you’ll get justice. I will change my name if I don’t get that butcher hanged. Go home. Take Basumati with you.”
After getting the Panchnama written, Ranveer sat in the Darogaji’s jeep and they drove off in a blaze of glory.
Behind them the people were left in a cloud of dust. They returned to their homes lamenting the injustice.
Returning to my courtyard, I sat amongst the distressed women. I felt as if the funeral procession had set off from this house.
Numerous, unanswered questions seemed fixed in the still, stony eyes around me. Under the guise of holy matrimony, the association of a tormented bird and a powerful hunter ….
Did the women recognise this egotistical assertion of intimacy? Or else why had they? And left like deaf and mute people?
No questions nor any counter questions!
Time passed. The elections for the post of the Pramukh were to be held.
Ranveer was once again in the fray.
Those days he was too busy even to breathe. I too was run off my feet, busy with all kinds of chores. The chulha would be burning all day. And there were the sleeping arrangements to be made too. A constant stream of visitors, it seemed as though a marriage was taking place.
Ranveer would say, “Villagers aren’t as simple as they are believed to be. There are those who have mastered the intricacies of the political labyrinth. The adept ones can easily outsmart the slickest city politicians.”
Ranveer had to indulge the whims of each of the Pradhans. I think all the Pradhans of the telisil must have come to our house to pay their respects. People were even talking in terms of Ranveer contesting the MLA elections after the Pramukh’s.
True enough, Ranveer was extremely clever. His campaign was not based on ordinary tactics like say, sponsoring liquor. He was the kind of person who was useful in moments of crisis. This was the reason why he still had a hold over the people of Dariyapur, even though his rival candidate was a relative of theirs. Like a messiah, he had delivered them from the clutches of the crocodile after a daughter-in-law of the village had stated that she had been burnt for not bringing two thousand rupees ….
Father and son would have certainly been hanged, or at least sentenced for life. The pride and honour of their magnificent turbans had been preserved only by Ranveer’s grace.
Popular opinion was such that three of the candidates conceded defeat even before the elections. There was only one rival left in the field. That too an ironmonger’s son. He must have been naive.
Ranveer left early in the morning. He sent a jeep for me in the evening.
The household chores seemed unending. I could barely make it there.
Anyway, even if I hadn’t gone, what difference would it have made? I had said as much to Ranveer. He hadn’t agreed. He said that the people would jeer that the Pramukhji’s wife was the Pradhan, but still hadn’t come to vote.
I returned after having cast my vote. Ranveer returned at night.
As soon as they spotted the searchlight of the jeep, the villagers began to gather at our doorway.
Ranveer walked through straight to the dining area. He looked very tired, beads of perspiration glistened on his forehead.
I reached his side with a glass of water.
He was silent. The crowds dispersed slowly on seeing him unwell.
When we were alone, I smoothed my hand over his brow and he turned even more restless. His face took on a piteous aspect. In a little while, he began to tremble like a fish stranded on the sand.
There was nothing left to understand. Massav, I made an effort to console him over his loss. “Don’t lose heart. Your job is to try. Defeat and victory are all part of the game.”
The door was shut from inside. I caressed his hands, pressed his feet. I tried hard to console him but my being, too was choked with emotion.
Massav, this is nothing to write about, but I did everything I could to comfort him, prayed I could overcome his agitation by making my mind and body one with his.
He was lost in his thoughts, “Those promises, those pledges, the oaths on the Ganga, was all that an illusion, Basumati …? Or a betrayal … ?’
Just at that intimate moment Devveer’s voice caught my attention. He was talking to somebody outside the door, “Bhaiya would not have lost but for a single vote. At least then he would have been even with the ironmonger.”
One single vote! I could not believe it!
Suddenly something within me gave way and everything seemed unsteady.
O God of fire! O great priest who had guided me through the seven steps to holy matrimony! O father, my creator! And Massav, you, my mentor … you had made me his consort, companion and partner in all his joys and sorrows and bidden me farewell as Ranveer’s wife.
But what could I have done? I just couldn’t kill the Isuriya in me!
Translated from Hindi by Meenakshi Sharma and Renuka Ramachandran
MAITREYI PUSHPA. is a popular Hindi fiction writer. Has written movingly of tribal life. She has received Sahitya Kriti Samman, Prem Chand Samman(twice), Nanjanagudu Tirumalamba Puraskar, and Virsinghdev Puraskar. Her major publications are Betawa Bahati Rahi, Idnnamam, Chak, (all novels) Chinhar, Lalmanian, (both short stories). Her works have been translated into English and other Indian languages.
MEENAKSHI SHARMA. Translates from Hindi into English. She has received the Katha award for translation in 1993.
RENUKA RAMACHANDRAN. Is a translator. She has received the Katha award for translation in 1993.