I was living in India in 1995 a year that marked the fiftieth anniversary of Indian Independence. The history of its recent past known to me through books of both fact and fiction. It’s then present know to me by experience of not only travelling but of both living and working in the country. Today more than a decade later the speed of change has probably altered it for me beyond recognition. However it seems to me that the expression ‘the rich get rich and the poor get poorer’ is still nowhere as true as it is there. The characters in this short story are inspired by a real family who lived as I have described next door to the house where I stayed for a brief period before finding somewhere of my own in the White Town mentioned in the story. I have invented their names using the familiar terms used in South India such as Tambi for younger brother and Amaji for respected old woman or grandmother and the like. The story of course is pure invention.I wrote it sometime before leaving the country in the year 2000. I dedicate it to that unknown family and to thousands like them keeping faith that there really is ‘good news of something better’ on the horizon.
Rani rose in the pre-dawn light laying her son gently on the worn mat on which they slept. She felt his body hot with fever, he moaned fretfully. The crows were screeching in the Neem trees as she woke her husband Ram. He slept awkwardly, his long legs hanging over the side in his cycle rickshaw pulled up at the front of the steps where his family lived.
‘Everywhere there are celebrations today’ he told her returning from his ablutions at the water pump at the end of the street.
‘You will get lots of work then?’ she asked hopefully. ‘We need medicines for the baby.’
Ram wanted to comfort her,
‘Yes yes defiantly.’ when Rani did not look convinced he added, ‘It’s Independence Day.’
Rani did not know India was independent, she only knew her family were poor. She prepared rice for them adding the last three curry leaves she had saved from the previous day. She saw her husband off; he would eat later and went to make sure that Amaji, her old mother ate something and then returned to the shelter of the doorway to wake the children.
No one lived in the house itself. It was locked up, falling into decay its owners overseas. She and the three children and Amaji lived on the front porch, although Amaji preferred her own little corner at the foot of the steps against the wall of the house and only moved in under the porch in the rains. Monsoon was approaching and now her son, just two years old was hot with fever. For want of a proper roof over his head thought Rani anxiously, he refused his Tiffin and now breakfast. She sent the two older girls for water as she left for work. She only needs to work two hours today because it is a holiday.
Roopa and Noni had been playing in a pile of sand left by workmen in the road. When they guessed their mother would return they ran up the steps to look out for her. She always came back with the Tiffin box filled with something tasty from Madams house.
‘Amaji Amaji’ they called to their grandmother as they skipped up the steps.
She always sat on the kerb in the daytime but she wasn’t there. Sometimes she told the girls strange stories but most of the time she hardly spoke a word for days on end. The girls usually ignored her because she would call them by their mothers name or not recognize them at all. She would hold up her hands and motion as if counting on her bony fingers, they could not understand what she was saying then she would become angry. That morning when they had returned with the water pot brimming, half running splashing the water because it was heavy to carry between them Amaji had been in her usual spot sitting on her haunches staring down into the stagnant water of the open drain like a seer. Now she was gone.
‘But where can she be?’ Rani asked Roopa the eldest girl.
‘We don’t know’ repeated Roopa to her mother’s questioning,’ Tambi our baby brother was crying so we hushed him to sleep.’
Noni picked up her baby brother trying to support him on her hip as her mother did. His thin legs dangled down almost to the ground, she was only five years old and small for her age.
‘Look at all these crowds’ said her mother looking back towards the main street, even their street was filling with people now.
Roopa bit her lower lip sensing her mother’s anxiety. She readily agreed when she told her to watch her sister and little brother as she set off to look for Amaji.
When Rani reached the main street the crowds were even greater than she imagined. Madam’s house was only a few doors down from where they lived and she had returned from sweeping and her other duties her mind bent on returning to her baby son and not paid much attention. Here red, green and white flags festooned the route along the entire street as far as she could see. Police held the people back every few feet, clearing the way for an important group of officials due to pass by any moment in a cavalcade of shiny cars decked with pennants. The crowds crushed along the pavements in a mêlée of confusion and shouting, craning their necks for the police escort and a glimpse of the procession, they all seemed to be making for the same place. Rani’s slight figure was swept along on the tide of humanity. She hardly ever came this way, beyond the canal in White Town where the grand houses lined quiet streets it was a different world. Rani was relieved when she recognized the old Residency Building. She fought her way through the throng to the small park opposite realizing it was hopeless looking for her mother in the crowds.
The night rain had left the gardens cool and green; a welcome relief from the sultry humidity of the streets. People were gathering in groups but it was less crowded and Rani looked for somewhere to rest a few moments. Crossing the grass towards the shade of an ancient Banyan tree to her surprise she spotted Amaji. She lay sleeping peacefully on a stone bench. Relief flooding her heart she sat down beside her. The light filtering through the branches cast pale shadows on her mother’s face softening the gaunt features and sunken cheeks making her look as Rani remembered her when they has first come to the city, long ago when Roopa was just a baby. She listened to her quiet breathing and decided not to wake her until she had rested, hoping the crowds would disperse before finding her way back to their street.
She watched a small group sitting close by eating and laughing. A woman looked up at Rani smiled and came across to Rani’s bench. It was Jeya.
‘Jeya!’ said Rani as she recognized her explaining how she came to be there.
‘How are you Rani? I have not seen you since your wedding in our village. Now you and Ram are here is it?’ the older woman asked.
‘Yes, it is a long time’ said Rani.
‘Well’ her friend continued,’ let me see, yes it was like this; I left just after your marriage and came here. It was good for a while but now things are getting harder and I can’t work now. My son, you remember?’ she pointed over to the group on the grass, ‘He has a government job now and is taking me in. What about you and Ram?’
There was an understandable note of pride in the way Jeya had told Rani about her son’s position. A government job! That was important, she would have no more worries but what hope could she, Rani have for her own son, she thought sadly. When not distracted by her worries about her children, her husband and now Amaji, Rani’s first concern was for a home. A real home, she and Ram both worked hard but there was never enough to do more than just eat. Jeya had always been kind, she thought looking at her, although poor herself she had given her and Ram a generous gift on their wedding, she could always talk to Jeya.
‘Even though it was just a poor village we had a house. Do you remember that white cow my mother had Jeya?’ she said.
Jeya said no, she did not remember.
‘Oh yes, I used to lead it around on a rope and,’ she laughed suddenly.
‘You look like your old self when you laugh’ said Jeya.
Rani’s vision of the white cow wearing the orange flower garlands she made it each day faded like the flowers themselves as she came back to the present.
‘Oh Jeya, I want the children to read, not be like me and Ram. Till now the two eldest girls can go to government school but how long can I keep them there? There is no money for books and Roopa the eldest well, soon she could work and my Madam said she would ask around for someone to take her on and maybe then perhaps we could find a place, is it wrong do you think? Why should I want something different than my fate Jeya?’ she asked.
‘See now Rani,’ said Jeya slowly, ‘Why should you not hope?’
Rani said nothing; she looked down at her mother, what was the use of talking.
‘What do you say’ Jeya broke into her thoughts. ‘My old house it is just now become vacant?’
Rani looked up.
‘Why not come now and meet the house owner, maybe there is a chance for you and Ram, he has poor health and will not be out with all these crowds, he sits home all day watching television so he will see us.’
A few moments later the two women were hurrying through the crowds.
‘It is near here, your ma will sleep till you return’ Jeya assured Rani as they left the park.
Rani felt a sudden surge of hope. If the rent were increased by only the usual amount for a new tenant, if Roopa could start working and she could take on Jeya’s old work too, even if it meant she would have to leave Noni with Tambi, they might be able to manage somehow. Hope for Rani was soon shattered. The house owner had eyed her through half closed eyes, not getting up or calling his servant to bring tea as was the custom of simple hospitality. She left Jeya still talking to his wife anxious to get back to Amaji. He asked double what Jeya had been paying, ‘To cover the rising prices’ he had said, plus a large advance payment, a sum Rani could never hope to raise. Her anxieties, for her family resurfaced, Ram may have returned to the steps to eat, she hesitated, seeing Amaji still asleep on the bench she decided that she would sleep through the heat of the day now, it was a pity to wake her. The streets would become quieter and she could return with Ram in the cycle rickshaw for Amaji later.
Dusk was falling when she awoke from her sleep with the children. The boy still fretful, Ram not yet returned. Shocked she had slept so long and anxious to return for Amaji she questioned the girls.
‘You stayed here all day? You are sure your father did not return, then how did he eat?’
She searched up and down their street, she remembered once he had got drunk with some very bad men. True it was long ago when they first came to the city after he and his brother had a big fight. What if, with all these strangers around he had taken a drink, and then another, he would not return empty handed and be ashamed she thought. She returned to the steps pushing the thought away, he had made her a vow never to drink again.
‘Your father will bring medicine for Tambi’ she said to reassure herself and encourage Roopa who sat rocking the crying baby on her lap. The street was noisy with traffic again; Rani quickly splashed water on her face adjusted her sari and gave instructions to her children.
‘I am going to the Residency Park for Amaji. When Apa comes send him with the rickshaw to fetch us. Look after your baby brother.’ She called behind her hurrying away.
Silent flashes of lightening flickered behind dark clouds. Crowds were everywhere heedless of the impending rain. Strings of coloured lights now lit up the Residency building. They hung in garlands over the larger than life statues of political figures. They meant nothing to Rani. Above them all, the lightening stalked slowly nearer as she entered the park. Rani went directly to the Banyan tree, Amaji was still laying there where she had left her.
‘Ama, ama, mother mother,’ she called softly ‘it is your own Rani come.’
She had not spoken this way to her mother since she had gone to the old Banyan tree, just like this one in their village as child to search for her mother there at the well.
Rani saw her own hand in slow motion reaching out to touch the old woman’s, before the instant that seemed to take so long, when her hand clasped over her mother’s hand she knew. Her mother was dead.
The first crack of thunder seemed to split the sky apart but it did nothing to startle Rani. She sat down still holding her mother’s hand. She wanted to cry, to beat her breast, to wail aloud but she could not. Nothing came. A vast gulf of silence had opened up inside her.
It was sometime later when she stirred like a sleepwalker waking in an unfamiliar place. A fierce gust of wind had blown a sheet of newspaper against her legs. She placed her mother’s hand carefully on the bench and reached down, plucked at the paper and smoothed it out. Paper was always useful, it was clean and dry, Rani looked uncomprehendingly at the type face, banner headlines loudly proclaiming India’s freedom. Rani’s mother had been a young woman when those fifty years of freedom had begun. The freedom had not brought either her or her daughter literacy. Rani could not read the accolades or reflect that perhaps only now, after a lifetime of poverty her mother had found at last a kind of freedom.
She folded the paper carefully and tucked it into the pleats of her threadbare sari. Large drops of rain began scattering along the path. She watched as the dark spots on the ground slowly merged. Suddenly the wind caught the branches of the Banyan tree showering leaves and drops of rain on her and her mother. It brought Rani to her senses, she brushed the leaves away; she must get help Ram wasn’t coming.
In the second burst of thunder right overhead the storm broke. Rain fell in a solid sheet of water and cleared the roads in seconds. The crowds scattered running for shelter. Rani stood up and ran across the grass hoping to call someone back. A cycle rickshaw was caught in the glare of the coloured lights that were swinging madly in the wind and rain. Its rider was peddling madly down the centre of the now empty road in the blinding rain. It was Ram.
Ram let Rani talk herself out between sobs and the tears that now fell as freely as the rain. They were both soaked to the skin. He drew Rani to the bole of the great tree to wait for the storm to subside. Amaji was still lying on the bench, they had nothing to cover her frail body but Ram pulled the palu of her sari gently over her face.
‘See Rani my sister,’ he said patiently to his trembling wife when she fell quiet.
‘I made you a vow did I not? Look I worked all day, so many people; they were all wanting a rickshaw. I was on my way back when who should call me but my own father who had come from our village to find me. “Ram I want you and Rani to come home” he said.’
The thunder backed away, retreating out over the Bay of Bengal growling ominously at the still flickering lightning. Rani could smell the rain soaking into the rich earth awakening the perfume of jasmine flowers as she helped Ram lift her mother’s frail body gently into the rickshaw. She squatted down on the floor holding her own sari folds over Amaji as Ram cycled slowly towards the nearby hospital. Amaji had been sick in her mind a long time and not knowing where she was. There was a long wait for the formalities and arrangements for the cremation the following day. Ram explained everything while they waited, they would bring flowers to cover her body and dress her in the special sari she had kept from her own wedding but for that night Rani’s last sight of her mother was peaceful.
‘We will stop to buy medicines for the baby before going home.’ said Ram finally.
‘Home’ Rani said ‘all day I was thinking only that thing. That is why I left Amaji sleeping in the park, Oh Ram if I had not been so foolish and stayed with her perhaps she would not have died?’
‘See Rani, maybe Amaji knew and wanted to be at peace this way. That is why she went to the Banyan Tree, a sacred place.’
‘She would be pleased do you think Ram at our going home?’
‘Yes surly, now that the family dispute between my brother and me is resolved. Now my father explained that he has taken his family to Bombay and will not be returning, why it is our duty to return to my father’s house.’
Rani was silent; she watched the strong back of her husband and the strength with which his legs peddled the rickshaw in a standing position so easily through the streets. She heard the tires on the wet road and saw the lights in a blur of sudden emotion.
‘But how will we live?’ she asked leaning forward.
‘I will sell the rickshaw’ he answered over his shoulder swinging into their street.
‘The money I made today will pay for our journey and tomorrow for the priest for Amaji and,’
‘Books for the children?’ added Rani infected by his mood of confidence.
‘Yes why not and Rani we will buy a white cow and sell the milk, as your own mother used to do, so we will do!’
Rani smiled unable to believe, at last her children could go to the free village school, they would live in Ram’s fathers house untill one day it would be Ram’s own house, they would have a real home at last.
As they reached the steps she saw Roopa was not looking out for them. It was late, clasping the packages of medicines she ran up the steps.
It was Noni who looked up and saw them. Roopa was concentrating just then on tying the ribbons she had found in her sisters hair; green, red and white, discarded in the celebrations, the colours of the Indian flag.