When Mano could not conceive for twelve years of being married to Sanatan, she decided to bring her sister Pooro in her household as Nitin’s bride. Nitin was Sanatan’s only brother with three sisters in between; all married and fertile, with eleven children amongst them and the promise of many more to come.
At the family councils held periodically to discuss such matters, it had begun to be suggested that Sanatan and Mano should adopt one of the sons that routinely bounced out of the three sisters’ bellies. Under the circumstances, the idea of a marriage between her sister and her husband’s brother seemed brilliant to Mano. A child born of such a couple would be the most preferable heir; closest in blood and hence, closest in affection. Besides, after the death of her mother-in-law, Mano had raised Nitin like a mother and was very fond of her simple, shy, and lazy brother-in- law.
Choosing an auspicious day for the purpose, Mano undertook a visit to her parental home.
On her earlier trips, she had not paid much attention to her little sister. She would spend her time meeting the new brides, examining their trousseaus, tasting their cooking and generally catching up with the gossip. Pooro was the little baby for whom gifts had to be taken on every trip, the size of the clothes getting bigger each time, until she menstruated and grew breasts. It was on one of these visits that the idea of marrying Nitin and Pooro had germinated in Mano’s mind and now she was back, with a formal proposal.
Mano’s parents had always accorded her the respect due to a married daughter. Especially since she had no mother in law and because of her mature and serene nature, she had come to acquire a position far beyond her years. So, after the family finished their lunch, taking a paan out of the silver box that her mother always carried, Mano asked a straight question,
“Amma, has Baba started looking for a match for our Pooro?”
Amma had been cross with her husband over the issue and was happy that the daughter had raised it. Without looking at Baba and spitting the red betel juice in a brass spittoon, she said,
“A good question you are asking me, Mano Beti. I have been after him to send the horoscope to the Panditji so that we can get started. But does he listen to me?”
Mano interjected laughingly, “Where are you going to send the horoscope, Amma, when we already have the groom? What do you say to Nitin? He is as good as my son and I have come to ask you for Pooro’s horoscope for him.”
The idea had cropped in Amma’s mind and she had already put it in Baba’s ears. Still, balancing the red juice in her mouth and handing a freshly cut beetlenut to her husband, she asked, with eyes dilated in surprise,
“What do you say, Mano? I trust you to make the best choice for your sister. But what about your people there, Sanatan Babu, his father, Buaji and Taiji?”
“Oh, leave that to me, Amma. I just want to assure you that Pooro will be as good as my daughter in my house. In any case, whatever we have is going to be inherited by Nitin’s offspring. I think its better that it goes to Pooro’s child than to one born to a stranger.”
The cruel reminder of her daughter’s childlessness made Amma emotional and brought the conversation to an abrupt halt. After three days, when Mano left, she carried with her, not just the regular sweets and bananas, but also her sister’s horoscope and photograph, paan and supari, and a firm commitment for an early wedding.
The twenty member Thakur family, living in the sprawling brick-colored kothi liked Mano. She was efficient, ran the kitchen with economy and kept a good eye on the servants. In her occasional good moods, when Mano had just filled her hookah with tobacco, even Buaji could overcome her lifetime of bitterness to share with Taiji,
“Our Mano is truly the perfect bahu. Not like your daughters-in-law, lost in their own petty worlds. Mano can keep her five senses in five different places at the same time. Such good care she takes of everything! And she is a genius in filling the hookah too!”
Taiji had to agree with the part about her own imperfect coins, and would add grudgingly, “You are right, Didi. But if only that coward Sanatan could give her a child, there would be none like her!”
There were murmurs of protest in the extended family, as bringing another bahu from the same genetic pool, which had produced childless Mano was seen as inauspicious by some of the visiting aunts. But the saintly Sanatan, and the partially paralyzed father-in-law, who ate out of Mano’s hands both literally and figuratively, okayed the arrangement. The priest did not find any fault with the horoscope, Nitin saw nothing to object in the photograph and the aunts shut up, when the polite but firm Mano defended her childlessness by dropping not too subtle hints about Sanatan’s preference for spending time with his guru rather than his wife!
In her enthusiasm to arrange the wedding, Mano did not give any thought to the character of the heroine of this story. The youngest of nine siblings, Pooro had grown up aiding and abetting her mother terrorize her five daughters-in-law. The bhabhis had done their share to spoil the girl by bribing her with ribbons, nail polishes, bangles and colorful scarves, so that she would not go and tell on their stolen pleasures. At eighteen, Pooro was selfish, disrespectful and a gossip of repute. She possessed none of the qualities, which even her most grudging critic granted to Mano.
Thus, when the new bride came to her new house, the cataract ridden eyes of Buaji were still sharp enough to see that the prettier Pooro was no match for her favorite Mano. Taiji generously allowed three days’ time to form her opinion, at the end of which she concluded with joyful sarcasm,
“If Mano Bahu thinks she has been clever to bring her sister in this house, very soon, she’ll be chewing her words and we’ll be watching the tamasha!”
Her sister’s arrogant behavior did not escape Mano’s scrutiny, but it was against her nature to write people off. Soon the two sisters settled down in their new relationship; Mano, taking care of the home, servants, cooking and Pooro, dressing up, playing with Taiji’s granddaughters and trying to have a child. In the Thakur household, no fault could be ascribed to a daughter in law who had the potential to produce an heir.
Unlike his brother, Nitin showed excessive fondness for his pampered, pretty wife. Mano toiled and sweated and kept an eager ear riveted to the nuptial door for news of good tiding. Months passed and then years passed by, with no such news forthcoming.
In the long afternoons, while Mano busied herself checking the store to make sure of the stock, giving instructions for dinner, or putting stitches on the needy linen, Buaji and Taiji indulged themselves in some pleasant gossip.
Buaji would start with words of truly shared sympathy for the ill-fated sisters,
“Poor wretches. Who could tell that both the sisters would have such cursed wombs? Imagine! It has been three monsoons since the wedding and no sign. Just yesterday the girl began her periods…tch… tch.”
Taiji, whose womb had already been proved blessed, with seven successful and three unsuccessful pregnancies, could not even be generous with pretended pity. She would draw herself closer to the old woman, disinterestedly pressing her arthritic legs, and say,
“Arre, better than this, we would have brought that girl, my cousin’s daughter. Such a simple and sweet girl also. No high and mighty airs like some people here have. And by God’s grace, she is with child for the third time. And both boys, think of that! But who would listen to me in this house. Let’s see what Mano Bahu will do now.”
The conversation would end with either Mano being sighted by one of the two and a quick, tactful change in subject, or by Mano overhearing them and butting in,
“Taiji, why do you make Buaji sadder by discussing all this. Let her live the rest of her life remembering God to ensure a better next life. And as for Pooro, sometimes it takes long for perfectly normal couples to have the first child. At least, she has a husband to call her own. Not like me…”
Though outwardly she could pretend nonchalance, inside Mano, the pain of two childless lives was becoming difficult to bear. Then, there were other problems to cope with. Sanatan had given himself almost completely to the Guruji’s ashram and rarely came home. Nitin did not take interest in the fields and a lot of the land had been taken over by Taiji’s four sons, who reasoned that the other side of the family was anyway going to be extinguished without an heir. Taiji had stopped talking to Mano directly and Buaji’s care had fallen exclusively in her share. There were fewer servants, lesser money and no one to confide in or talk to.
When Guruji’s blessings and all the sacred charms did not work, Mano finally suggested to Pooro and Nitin to see the doctor. After a year of making frequent trips to the local doctor, Nitin proposed that he would like to try the doctors in the city.
Mano understood that it would be expensive for a couple with Pooro’s taste and Nitin’s extravagance to live in a big city for an indefinite time and spend money on doctors, but there was no other way. The household desperately needed a son, to claim ownership of this side of the family; or at least a daughter to prove that the sisters were not cursed!
Anyway if Pooro did not produce a son, all the land was going to go to Taiji’s devilish sons and so it was decided to sell some land and to send the couple to the city to begin their uncertain journey towards parenthood.
Nitin and Pooro were completely taken up by the life of the city. There was so much to see and living in an apartment did take some adjustments; learning about water timings, cooking gas refills, doors that always had to be securely locked and doorbells that infrequently rattled the couple’s attempts at making the baby. But Pooro, with her native intelligence and her knack for gossip, which helped her befriend the neighborhood women, was soon equipped to deal with bus routes, auto drivers, zebra crossings, gynecologist appointments and with post- coital postures to aid conception and thermometers and calendar crossings.
Pooro was a confident, brave girl. But with time her attitude began to soften and her rosy face showed anxiety and irritableness. As she turned the pages of the calendar, Pooro’s eyes welled with tears. In the last few months, her grit was beginning to fail her. Nitin was developing some of his elder brother’s stoic attitude, but for Pooro, the seven menstrual cycles had been an entire lifetime of learning. Every month, when she turned the calendar, she wrote to her sister that the doctor was still hopeful and they were trying their best. In return, Mano dutifully sent money and gentle reminders of how this should not last too long as the village was beginning to gossip and among other things, Taiji was talking of a second wife for Nitin.
Pooro thought about it at length, from a microscopic germinal disc in her mind to a full blown, detailed plan. Then she discussed it with Nitin. Although it involved shocking deception, it seemed to be the only way out, for her, for Nitin, for Mano, for the property, which must not pass hands to Taiji’s sons and grandsons. Besides, Nitin was getting tired of the whole exercise himself and often secretly wished that he could just go and spread himself on the verandah and sleep like a bachelor. He credited his wife with enough cunning and did not doubt that she would be able to carry out the plan. But out of curiosity, he asked questions that he thought were pertinent,
“Pooro, even if I agree to keep it a secret that will go to the burning pyre with me, how are you going to arrange for a newly born baby? And a boy at that? And what if someone found out?”
Nitin’s tone implied an acceptance of the plan and brought a nimble smile on Pooro’s sensuous mouth. She replied,
“Oh, oh, you think I am just talking in the air, do you? When I told you yesterday I was going to saree shop with Sita, I had actually gone to the orphanage that I had seen on way to the hospital. They think it should be possible to get a newly born child, but they cannot assure whether it will be a girl or boy. We can hope for the best. As for people doubting, I have worked that out in detail. I will write to Mano Didi that I am pregnant and also tell all the others here. When it is time to get the baby from the orphanage, we will shift to another house. How is that?”
Pooro made it sound easy, knowing that if the slightest apprehension escaped in her voice, Nitin would be scared and refuse to co-operate. Struggling with her destiny had given her a daring, which was not going to be restrained by the indolent squeamishness of her husband. A letter was soon composed for Mano, dramatically announcing the much awaited news.
When Mano heard the good news, after fits of crying and laughing and offering prayers to all the deities in the various parts of the house, she finally decided that she needed to be with her sister for these precious months of her life. To this effect she wrote a letter to her sister.
“My dearest dearest Pooro,
Even if I tried to tell you how happy I am with your good news, I don’t think you would understand, because you have only felt for months, what I have felt for the last sixteen years! I always knew and had faith in Lord Shankar and our family deity that Nitin and you would be blessed soon! Now it is my turn to hold my head high in pride! Already this morning I made some sweets and sent Champa to Taiji’s house to give the good news. I did not go myself because I promised myself a trip to that side of the family with our little Krishna in my arms. They say it is easier to pass happy times, but I feel so much anxiety and impatience inside me that I do not know I how will pass these nine months.
I have asked your Jethji to make arrangements to send me to the city. I had sent word that it was urgent for him to come and he did come for a while. He has begun wearing saffron and refused to enter the courtyard, so I had to speak to him from inside the door, while he sat on the outside verandah. He looked very much thinner and darker and did not say much, but I could feel the happiness from his voice. I was first worried about Buaji, but she is so excited about your good news that she feels nothing will happen to her even if I leave her to the care of Champa. But I will be more worried if I left you all by yourself.
Please write what all you need from here, other than mangoes and rice and lentils and spices, which I will bring with me anyway. And take care of yourself until I reach there.
Buaji sends her love to both of you and all my prayers and blessing are with you.
Pooro was prepared for this. After sending the letter to her sister, she had expected that her affectionate sister was going to insist on coming over. Ever since she had put the letter in the mailbox, she had been busy making plans to avert such a crisis. She did feel bad about playing with her sister’s feeling of inadequacy or her inability to bear a child. But this was the only way to discourage Mano from undertaking a journey to the city. She wrote back,
“My sweetest Didi,
It is just like you to not think about yourself and think about everyone else. In fact, Nitin and I were asking the doctor if we could go to the village, where we would both love to be because we miss you so much. But the doctor has said that she would like to keep me here for the first three months after which maybe I can travel. So, anyway we will be home before the rains.
As I wrote to you earlier, I have made some very good friends here and that old woman Parvati, who lives on the ground floor is almost like a mother for me. You have brought up your devar so well, he is so sincerely and diligently taking care of me, even Amma could not have done better.
Didi, every moment of my life I want to be with you and would love to have you here, but to think that you will be leaving the house and Buaji to that scoundrel Champa makes me upset and apprehensive.
And Mano didi, you are such a darling and it is not your fault, but if you do decide to come, please check with Panditji about your visit being auspicious. Please do not get me wrong. I would rather die than say anything like that about you, but this is the first chance for us and you will surely like everything to be done right, won’t you?
Your dever sends his best regards to your feet. And so do I.
Your foolish little sister,
It hurt her with all the severity with which it was intended and Mano did not consult the priest on the point. Surely, she did not want to come in the way of her sister and her good luck. What was her life anyway? Except the vermillion in her parting, there was no difference between Buaji and her. So, she did not remind Sanatan about the journey to the city and carried on with her life as usual, with the only exception of lighting an extra lamp to the family deity every evening in gratitude and in anticipation.
Pooro did not come after three months. Her letter came, requesting for money and informing that it was considered safer by the doctor to keep her. At the end of nine months, a telegram came giving the news of Pooro’s son being born and promising an early return, after at least twenty seven days. The child was said to have been born under stars that made it inauspicious for blood relatives to see him for that duration of time. The telegram had come from a different address.
When the new mother finally came back, both Mano and Buaji did not want to cast their unfortunate shadow on the baby and Champa, the maid, was sent to call on Taiji to come and bless the baby. Although Taiji was not too happy with the news for the sake of her own sons, she had been missing Mano’s hookah and Buaji’s idleness, over which she used to share shocking tales of misbehavior by her daughters in law.
The moment had come to erase the warring lines in the courtyard and welcome the little peacemaker, Krishna. Taiji showed extreme gracefulness and obliged by being the blessed and complete woman to welcome the new mother. After Taiji, it was the turn of her bahus, all with vermillion in their parting and proven records of motherhood and hence, exercising the right of precedence over married but childless Mano and the widowed and childless Buaji. Mano gifted the baby a gold chain with a Krishna locket, and Pooro graciously wore it around her neck, touching her elder sister’s feet in gratitude and quivering with slight apprehension, lest someone should sense something wrong.
Pooro remained totally preoccupied with the baby and refused to allow anyone to get near him. Krishna, as the baby was called, was her life’s complete obsession and no one was to come between her and her precious son.
Mano’s life remained unchanged, except the mild arthritis pain, but she felt happy now that there was a child in the house. When Krishna wailed in his mother’s arms, Mano’s breasts felt taut, as if with milk. Although she was not supposed to have been an expert on the subject, not having borne a child herself, she still felt confident that if she could somehow pick him up and fold him in the warmth of her weathered hands, the baby would just smile and begin to play with her hair, her lips, her neck. She could feel the child’s plump fingers on her and broke in a sweat with the effort to restraint herself from reaching out to Pooro’s zealously guarded territory.
The village had given up guessing who the child looked like, but in the rare moments that Mano got to hold him and peer into his face resting against her rough hands, to her, Krishna looked just like her saintly husband Sanatan; bald head, drugged eyes and a resigned, peaceful expression.
Life fell into a new mundane grind; everyone busy with their own worlds and Mano struggling to cope with the void in hers. In the beginning, she ascribed her sister’s strange, secretive behavior to motherhood, but gradually she was forced to ponder over the events leading to Krishna’s birth.
It was a trivial incident which put the funny, but stubborn idea in Mano’s mind. When Pooro had refused Champa’s offer of post natal massages, Champa laughingly remarked,
“Bahu, the child comes into this world after breaking all the bones of the mother. You are behaving like you’ve picked him up from the road and not carried him inside your body.”
Pooro had shut the petulant girl up by reminding her of the excellent medical care she had received in the city and not depending on ignorant fools like Champa. The conversation had ended in jest; but the more Mano observed Pooro, the more uncomfortable she felt about the lack of post natal signs in her. It was an unusually cold winter and the layers of clothing around the mother and child had worked in their favor.
Mano herself refused to let the idea take shape within her, so tender and joyful she had felt to be in the presence of baby Krishna. But the unwanted idea grew like the little fish in the Pauranic story, until it forced her to consider the possibility of an unknown alien being raised under her roof as the carrier of the family name.
In her mind, she went over the events leading up to the birth, the ploy to keep her from taking care of Pooro, the couple changing homes just at the time of delivery, the child not being brought home soon after birth, the child looking too big for his age, which was ascribed to the good effects of powder milk, Pooro’s inability to breast feed and above all, the secretiveness, which had suddenly crept into the house, where Nitin and Pooro appeared to be on the other side of a sinister wall of silence. Nitin hardly ever looked into her eyes or talked about their days in the city. Pooro was bold and cheerful, but to Mano, too cheerful and too jealous about the child, which appeared unnatural.
As her unspoken fears grew inside her, the surge of affection she had felt for Krishna earlier, turned first to bitterness, and then gradually, to hatred. The vagabond child that she had to treat as the most precious part of her family seemed like a venomous viper, who had usurped the place of the child she had conceived many times over in her mind and heart, but never in her womb.
When Krishna cried now, she no longer ran to Pooro’s room wiping wet fingers in her saree, but indifferently told Champa to go and see. Anyway, it seemed like the child cried much more and needed much more attention than a proper child born into a family like theirs would have. He looked very ugly to Mano and she wondered how she ever found him lovable. The sense of betrayal she felt on account of Pooro and Nitin’s behavior paled in comparison to the pure hatred she felt towards the child, being nurtured in her house to take away all that was hers for years; the honor, the prestige and the name. She hated her sister and Nitin for bestowing it all on an outsider, but she clearly hated the outsider more.
There was still no evidence, nothing over which she could create a scene even if she had been capable of creating one. She knew her world well enough to know that it would all be ascribed to the frustrations of her own childlessness and jealousy of her own sister. She could not bear the thought and to all outward appearances, continued her life as usual, spending more time with ailing Buaji than with anyone else. In any case, she was not needed by Pooro, who made no secret of what exactly she thought of her sister’s growing indifference towards Krishna.
Then one morning, Pooro was sick.
She had long gotten out of the habit of crossing days of ovulation and menstruation on her calendar, but Pooro had a fairly good idea of what it could be. Which was just as well, because Pooro Thakur, Chhoti Bahu, mother of year old Krishna was not expected to be ignorant of such matters. Neither was she expected to be excited because a second child after a son was largely superfluous. Now, it was her turn to be pregnant and hide all anxieties, fears and excitements that she had so deliberately put on and exaggerated the first time around.
Even as she confessed to herself, the thought of her first child being second to Krishna left a sour taste in Pooro’s mouth. She tried hard to keep up appearances, but she could not help but feel a certain kind of hopelessness about Krishna. Because of her foolish haste, she had landed herself in a situation where she neither had the privilege of being fussed over during her first experience of motherhood, nor could she shirk the responsibility of a child who had become more and more demanding of her attention.
Mano tried to reason with herself that if Pooro could conceive, maybe Krishna was her own child. But the more she reasoned, the more she was convinced of the contrary, so remarkable was the change in Pooro’s attitude towards her so-called first born. Pooro no more rushed indecently out of the bathroom at the first sign of wailing from the child. While working in the kitchen and attending to Buaji, Mano heard the child’s crying getting longer and longer. More often than not, it was Buaji’s voice calling Champa to take the whining kid away.
Before the nine months were over, Krishna had dulled in appearance and acquired the most boisterous shrieks to gain the attention of his once fawning mother, who now was too preoccupied with her precious womb to care for him. Nitin, true to his nature had not even bothered to keep appearances. He was totally devoted to his wife and treated little Krishna with the contempt that he thought the child deserved for being placed in the unfortunate circumstances.
It did not help the poor wretch that Pooro’s child was a healthy, beautiful son. At the end of confinement, Champa brought Krishna to show him his little brother. Pooro impulsively hugged her newborn, reluctant to let the scrawny and shabby Krishna touch him.
As Pooro became completely immersed in the care of her little one, Krishna lived his life on the periphery, going from room to room, sometimes in need of having his pants changed, at other times, of food, but at all times, of attention. At night, he just tired and fell asleep, wherever his sleep overtook him, often on the cot next to Buaji, where Mano had taken to sleeping lately, to be around if something was to happen to the old woman at night. It angered her to find Krishna in her bed, and she always carried him back to Pooro’s room. She resented herself for being meek and for not telling Pooro to keep with her what she had brought upon herself.
On a moonlit pre monsoon night, after she had closed the kitchen, finished her prayers, made sure that the animals were safely under those parts of the roof that had not begun leaking yet, Mano again found Krishna asleep on her cot. His body was limp, his feet dirty, his lips parted. One of his legs was dangling from the bed and his hands clutched the pillow with red and green embroidered pattern of hibiscus flowers.
He looked like a kid about to drown and holding on to the last thing he could find. Moonlight spread generously over his dark face, curly hair and chapped lips. It was not Nitin’s face, nor was it Pooro’s, nor Sanatan’s or Mano’s or of anyone sleeping under the roof of the house. It was an abandoned soul which had drifted into Mano’s world, which was already adrift, anchorless. As the scrawny child shivered in the damp breeze, Mano felt a kinship with the poor wanderer. He had become just like Mano, familiar with the walls and doors of the haveli, tracing out his only place on earth, but totally irrelevant and not to be missed, when gone.
Pooro’s world was complete. In his own way, so was Sanatan’s. Buaji had already tied the basil beads around her neck, signifying her absolute preparedness for the other world. But for Mano, this was her world; imperfect, not the way she had dreamt of it when her husband had first lifted the heavy golden brocade veil from her face and exclaimed at her perfect, symmetrical features, not the way she had gone around in those initial years, with the delicate chiming of the elaborate anklets and alta patterned feet, proud that the entire village envied her mother-in-for bringing such a fine bahu. And in this world, she now had a companion thrust onto her, whom she had hated with all the hatred she was capable of.
She lifted the child’s leg onto the cot and picked him up to take him to Pooro’s room. And then she stopped. The child felt light, much lighter than he had felt when Mano got to embrace him occasionally and fervently, stealing herself from Pooro. His hands were skinny and as he dropped his head on Mano’s bare neck, his chapped lips felt sharp and dry. Mano stopped. Gently, she put Krishna back on her cot, pushing it closer to Buaji’s, so that the child should not fall down while she slept one side of him and Buaji, on the other.
At the family council called soon after this night, everyone agreed with the sisters’ proposal to let Mano formally adopt Krishna. The entire village praised the generous younger sister for letting the childless Mano become a mother to her first born. After all, poor Mano also needed someone to take care of her in her old age! For years after this incident, women in the village would get sentimental to think about the love between the two sisters. It improved Pooro’s image from a selfish, conceited woman to a large hearted, self-sacrificing icon. As Taiji wryly remarked to Buaji,
“It was really a good decision Didi, for Mano Bahu to bring her sister to this house!”
Shinjini Kumar is an ex banker and startup founder. She lives in Mumbai and Mukteshwar. Her short stories are about quirks of the human condition.