'If he goes to the city, I don't want to marry Naresh.'
The girl looked demure enough, but the voice was firm, the chin steady.
'If he comes with me, he'll earn more and keep you like a queen,' started Ramu. His voice faltered as his daughter caught his eyes and then, very pointedly let hers rove over the dilapidated courtyard, the shambles of an 'open kitchen', the animal shed, the old homestead, glancing at her mother and then coming back to him, a mute question in her eyes:
'Is my mother living like a queen?'
Not many words were then needed. What Ramu found galling was that his parents too sided with Rani and his wife Dhanno's stubborn stand that if he took Naresh with him to Pune, Rani would not marry him.
He shouted at his doe-eyed daughter, her rosy cheeks aflame now, 'Do you want him to remain a yokel forever tied to the plough?'
Bhauji spoke up. 'Beta, things are changing here. Now they ride tractors and go to the mandi themselves. They rent a TV and DVDs to see films at home and eat pizzas with Coke in the town sometimes. If Naresh wants to go with you, take him.'
Ramu stomped out. He did not stay long. Instead of his usual month stay, he left within ten days, leaving behind a household sighing with relief at the exit of tension. Before he left, there was another dustup. Ramu wanted to take with him not just his friend's son Naresh but also his own son, Raghu.
When he announced his intention, it was not just Dhanno who paled. The old people were left almost gasping for air.
'Beta, don't you realize Dhanno is getting old too? If Raghu goes with you, who will help her with the kheti? Hasn't she slogged enough for us? When your mother fell ill, we brought her as a young girl to help your mother with the house. When she came, she was younger than Rani is today. When you left for Pune, Dhanno took on all your duties along with your mother's. Your city papers write articles on female headed households ' we know all about it. Ours is one. What did the government do for us? What have you?
Have you any idea of what she has been through all these lonely years? And you want to snatch away her only hope for the future?'
For a moment, Ramu was stunned by the vehemence in his father's argument. He recovered quickly:
'Look at him. Just look at my son. See how eager Raghu is to go with me. You want a yoke for your land, but I want to give my son a city life and a chance to make money. I also want someone of my own with me there.'
Dhanno glanced at her son. He flushed at the scrutiny but the excitement and the glow was patent. Her heart thumped loudly and her womb seemed to shrivel with pain.
'He wants to leave us and go. How can we hold him back? Should we?'
Apprehension broke out as sweat on her face. She had been on her haunches, churning butter in the traditional way, twirling the long stick-churner set in a big pot. Now she sat down heavily.
'The roads of Pune are not paved with gold. Ramu had promised me that, but never sent enough for two square meals. That came off the land if I worked hard enough. During the monsoon, when we needed cash most for food, seed, fertilizer, everything, it was always his lean season too,' she recalled.
But money was not the issue here. The issue was losing Raghu to the city.
Rani was watching her mother. Once, only once Dhanno had gone to visit Ramu in his city. Chaiji had told her that in the context of the dramatic changes seen in Dhanno after she came back from the visit. Yet nine months later, Rani had been born.
Ramu took another tack. 'Let me speak to Rani.'
His father responded in a conciliatory tone,'Beta who has stopped you from speaking to her. Rani, bacchi, listen to what your father says.'
Ramu shook his head. 'I'll speak to her alone.' As he took Rani's arm to lead her out, apprehension clouded three faced. Raghu was oblivious.
They left home, heading for a little glade by the canal. Ramu started off, he thought, gently. 'Rani, mein tera dushman nahi hoon, tera baap hoon. Tu meri beti hai. I want the best for you.'
Rani's eyes remained downcast, but her face was skeptical.
'Look bacchi, I grew up here, in this village and have now spent years in Pune. I know the difference, believe me. Life is totally different there. Things are so open, so free there. With Raghu and Naresh, we'll soon be earning enough for you to come there and you'll have the latest fashions to wear and the latest films to see in big theatres.'
Ramu faltered at the scorn in his young daughter's face.
'How can Naresh afford a wife in Pune when you have not been able to afford your family in over twenty years?'
'If Dhanno came, who would have worked the land and looked after Bhauji and Chaiji?'
'So it is alright if she remains a yoke tied to the land, but not Raghu and Naresh. Is that it? Tell me, who will look after Naresh's parents if we both are not here?'
Ramu gulped and scratched his head, thinking up a response.
'Looking after parents is not the only issue. There are many others'.
'Tell me, let me also know and understand.'
'Dhanno was very young when we married. But she was a cheerful soul, always smiling and giggling, humming songs as she did all the work and went to play with the girls sometimes. Then I went away and got busy with my life. This village is different, so are its people. Once when Dhanno came, she looked different, her clothes were different, her way of speaking and behaving with people made me ashamed in front of my people there.'
'May be when you first went there, you must have been like that too. Perhaps I too will shame you, if I come. Everyone says I am like my mother. And may be even Raghu and Naresh will shame you when they go with you now.'
'Change takes time. They'll get used to those ways. But Dhanno'he paused for words.
'What about Ma? Why?'
'She was just not comfortable there. It was supposed to be a holiday, but she worried constantly, about Bhauji and Chaiji, about the village and the kheti, about my living in squalor, about the expense, about the next harvest, about so many things. It was so much worry that she forgot how to laugh. Then she wanted to come back. After that, she never came again.'
'But you came, once a year. Why didn't you persuade her like you are trying to persuade me?'
The father looked at his spread out hands, turned them over as if he was examining his nails. He knew what she was asking; he had an answer, but could he give that answer to a young daughter on the threshold of marriage, as it were. Shrugging his shoulders he said,
'Chal beti, we'll look out for someone else for you some other time. Stop worrying, nothing will happen to your ma.'
They went back, said nary a word to answer the questioning faces, but all too soon, the three men were gone. Dhanno managed a wan smile for Ramu and Raghu, the tears which threatened to spill over, held back by a steely resolve until they were out of sight.
The next time Ramu came back, not in a year's time, but after four short months, a strapping lad in tow. Ramu was expansive on the positives of this match.
'Rani, he has lived in Pune all his life. He will not need change, he is like that only. And he wants a bride from the village to bring this flavor into his life. He is a good boy. You will be happy with him and his family there.'
This time round, it was Rani who led her father out of the house. Compassion, shame, anger and so many expressions chased across her face until they reached the glade.
'Why have you brought him? You could have written, sent a photo.'
'Why don't you like him?'
'That is not the point. I am no burden on you that you're taking such pains to get rid of me.'
'Rani, I want you close to me, in the city.'
'And Ma? She alone?'
'Rani, you are at the threshold of life now; think of yourself.'
'I am thinking of that too. I will be a stranger in the city. So better that I marry someone here. At least I will not be alone and can be there for Ma, Chaiji and Bhauji.'
'Beta, your life is your own, not theirs.'
'Like yours is your own?'
'Haven't I come for Raghu and you?'
'Yes, after so many years that I wonder why you have remembered us now? Us only, not Ma?' Rani took a deep breath before moving forward, a trifle gingerly. Chaiji told me how Ma changed after her holiday with you. I asked Ma'
That evoked a sharp reaction. 'What did she tell you?'
'Many things. Now I understand some things better. Why she relies so much on Mamaji.'
'Don't mention that scoundrel. Why does she need to rely on him? Why does he avoid me?'
'Whom else could she rely on? She had to learn to read and write along with Raghu and me. You were never there when anything happened, illness, school admissions, exams, harvesting, spraying, marketing, taking loans, anything. Had you been there, she would naturally have turned to you. If you had been there,' she amended slowly,' you would have been there and she would not have needed to do all that. She would have had time for us and for some sajna-savarna like all other women.' This last came out accusingly, in a rush of youthful fervor.
Rani had almost come out with the painful secret her mother had confided in her to warn her against falling into a similar trap. Unconsciously, she echoed her mother's painful recounting.
'You were never here. Always in the city. When she came of age and became the butt of all, who was there to take her side? Chaiji only thought of her beta. The bahu is always poisoning. But when her own brother appeared on the scene, that poison became a peda and she look conveniently away.'
Rani's tongue stilled as she recalled Dhanno looking away, pain and wonder chasing across her face.
'What is chastity?' Dhanno had declaimed. 'There is only Maya. Jo hai so nahi hai, jo nahi hai so hai ' Maya. If anyone looked at me, she sued to curse them. But her brother, how could she say anything to him, even when he stole her son's right? She even pretended to lose her old kada, so he could sell it to take us to a dai somewhere else far away to clear my womb the first time, as your Baba had not touched me. The dai here would have told the whole village.'
'Ma, what about Baba?'
'What about him? He came only once a year and used me for three weeks. That's all. Bhauji also accepted the situation, except to keep reminding me that your Baba was my husband. What could I say to him without shattering his ego or his faith in his mother? And the rest of the year, here was someone I learnt slowly to rely on, to lean on, and to seek help and advice from.
We learnt from each other, we taught each other. He taught me about the world outside our village and away from your Baba's Pune mohalla..they call it Peth. I taught him about emotions and relationships and about you children. He never married; and avoids your Baba as far as possible. Why take a panga? It's been so many years now. But when your Baba comes, I am always tense. I can't help it. I know that in Pune, he too'.he too'.' Dhanno's voice trailed off.
'How do you know? Did he tell you?'
'Hat pagli. As if anyone would. He was not at ease when I went. May be his touch was different. It made me uneasy. I could sense something different when I reached there. The women in the chawl would snigger behind my back; even broad hints in front of me. He had taken a room for us but usually he lived in another lane...with a widow who worked in his karkhana. She was looking after her brother and his children. The women said that sometimes when there was a big order, they had to do overtime or night duty. Then they slept in the karkhana itself and came home in the morning together.' Dhanno paused at the memory of the question marks in her mind and the malicious grate in the voices telling her. 'It could have been just her, or so many others. Men need variety, don't they? Especially away from home and no-one to control. I asked him whom he worked with, but he never took me to meet them, nor to his karkhana. The thought of it made me uncomfortable, with all the women talking so much about it. I just came back home. Who knows,' Dhanno ruminated,' the widow may have seen me. Her or someone may have pointed me out. I looked different, that was her home ground, all of them in their graceful nine yard saris, green and red glass bangles, mango shaped nose rings and thick silver toe rings.'
Ramu's voice grated on Rani's reverie. He almost shook the girl.
'What poison, what peda? What are you talking about? What have Chaiji and your Ma done?' he looked at Rani closely.
Rani collected herself. 'Chaiji and Ma? What can they do? What can women do, except lie down' her voice trailed off.
'Don't change the subject? What have those two told you?'
'Nothing. Only that Ma changed after she visited your city.' She looked at her father boldly. 'Slowly Ma became more confident, she took control of the kheti and that she started learning a lot of new things which she never did before.'
'And sajna savarna?' he archly recalled her earlier taunt.
'She gave that up. She became very simple. You have seen that. I think she looks wonderful with just that red bindi and her silver jhumkas. Because Ma is beautiful even without sajna savarna; with that, she would become Aishwarya Rai. Who wants a mother like that?'
'Look Rani, if you come to the city, your fate will not be of the women who just lie down. There women do all sorts of work.'
'We do it too. Ma and I, not just milking the cows, tending the hens or churning butter. We tend the fields, even drive the tractor. Even Ma used to until Raghu took over. She never wasted money on a driver. Only in the mandi did she let Mamaji or Raghu do the talking, with her prompting sharply so that we got the best deals. How do you think she brought us up? '
Ramu shook his head to clear his thoughts. All the arguments he had worked on all the way here were clean gone. What poisoned peda was Rani talking about? He too had sensed the changes in Dhanno, before and after the visit to his city.
In the city she had constantly looked at him speculatively. He felt her eyes on him and an almost desperate wanting to please and satisfy him. It was almost as if she was trying to seduce him back home. And he had been on the edge, fearful that his guilty secret might be out.
When Dhanno insisted on going home, he was almost relieved. He wanted her gone before any chance meeting could happen. Thoughts slithered in and out of Ramu's mind
'What did Chaiji and Dhanno do? Was it because of me, because I left Dhanno? I had my new life, people by my new family? What did Dhanno have? How did she manage her life? Did she? Who? Was it really Mama?'
The thoughts plagued Ramu. Several times, he decided to ask his mother, but his courage failed him. His guilt was never this heavy when he was in the city. Ramu tried to get through to Dhanno. 'Talk to Rani. Tell her. They'll both be together with his parents. No question of any separation we have lived through. Dhanno, she'll listen to you. She worships you.'
Dhanno caught her lip. She got the gist of Ramu's thought process. He did not want his daughter to suffer from those pangs of separation that he had inflicted on his wife.
For a fleeting moment, Dhanno was mutinous. 'You never thought about my pangs of separation, did you?' she railed mutely. Then the mother in her took over 'Why should my Rani suffer what I did. Hey Rabba! That she should go down the road that I have, balancing two, satisfying neither.'
But Rani was emphatic. 'I will live here only. If all the boys want to go to Pune, then I'll remain alone Here.' Sawaal nahin udha. There were plenty of matches for Rani ' a beautiful educated girl whose father worked in the city. Who did not know how Dhanno had looked after the kheti, her children and her in-laws?
When the marriage took place, Ramu came in a foul mood, which persisted through the festivities, despite Rani's pleading eyes and smiles. After that it was a long while before they saw him. Only his money orders, now as regular as clockwork, then an ATM card, which Rani used to draw money when she or Dhanno needed it.
Several years later, a couple got off the incoming train. The man's looks were familiar enough. The station master squinted through the bars of the ticket windows, scratching his head in puzzlement. His companion was a total enigma.
Well built and well stacked, the sari that slipped gracefully through her legs showed off not just her figure but the legs as well. Jingling anklets circled the neat ankles and Kolhapuri chappals encased the slim feet with shining, unpainted toes. The face was round, as was the bun behind, encircled by a generous string of fragrant white flowers. A huge red bindi with a little black line under it topped the nose from which dangled that pearl and garnet nose ring.
'Who are they? He?' wondered the station louts as the couple engaged a porter and started to walk down the long road to the village.
It was only when they were well on their way; with the man pointing out features to the woman that it hit the station master.
'Ramu, it is Ramu, with a beard and glasses. He is graying. Who is she?' The look of possession between the two had been unmistakable. He dispatched a runner to give the news.
The morning peace of the household shattered with the breathless burst:
'Ramubabu has reached with a Marathan.'
Bhauji recovered first. 'Carry on your churning Dhanno. Let's see what he wants now. Better put some tea on,' he instructed his wife,' are the parathas done?' he was blabbering one, worry and joy mingling in his voice.
The tea bubbled, the parathas warm in the cloth lined basket, the churning slathering was the only sound in the waiting courtyard, the old man on his easy chair, the old woman on her charpoy and Dhanno squatting on a low stood behind the tall pot she churned after her early morning round of the fields.
The chain clanked loud when Ramu pushed the door open. He stood in the middle of the doorway, taking in the white washed courtyard, the newly rebuilt kitchen and the solar cooker proudly in front of it. Dhanno as usual with her butter.
Slowly he stepped aside and pulled the Marathan forward. Tension was also writ on her face but she met the scrutiny boldly, seeking Dhanno's eyes, before she bowed to the old people in the Maratha way, with not one but several touching of their feet with her folded hands. Tea and breakfast bridged the initial awkwardness.
While the Marathan went to bathe in the new bathroom recently added inside, Dhanno called Rani 'your Baba has come.' She did not mention the guest. It would take Rani sometime to complete her own household routine and reach home to meet her father. Meanwhile father and son walked to the glade.
'Bhauji, I want to come home. Naresh and Raghu are settled there, but I need my home now.' Tears flowed unabashedly down the old wrinkled cheeks.
'There will be problems,' Ramu continued,'Dhanno...'
'What about Dhanno?' Bhauji tone was sharp, protective.
'I know I am her gunehgaar. You tell me, what do I do now? If I remain in the city, the gunaah continues. But I want to come home. I have responsibilities there too. There is no escape. For me she faced the wrath of her family, her whole chawl, her jati to marry an outsider.' The old man's eyes widened at the word: Marry?
'How could I desert her in Pune because I wanted to come back home? Twice gunehgaar?'
'You think of yourself always. you wanted to go, you went. You wanted to come back, after years of silence, you came. Did you think of the consequences? You knew your gunaah with Dhanno, but it did not bother you. Now you want to come home to Dhanno, why bring a Marathan in tow? What are you expecting this time?'
'Why do you think it does not bother me? It does. It bothers her also. That is why she has come with me, to share Dhanno's burden.'
Bhauji's eyes narrowed. 'Share the burden or the sale of the land?'
It was Ramu's turn to blanch.' Are you selling?'
'Dhanno will decide.'
'What about Raghu? Rani?'
'Who does the kheti? Dhanno will have to decide. It is her land, her house.'
'No longer. When we needed loans and she had to do all the paper work, it was convenient to put the properties in her name for various loans. Recently some agents came to talk about converting some of the land into a kheti hotel.'
'Kheti hotel? What is that?'
'Arre Baba, these videshis who come home for a holiday, they want to live on a farm but with hotel facilities. They are interested in the field near the road. They want to take,' the old man bit his tongue,' your Mama abroad for some training-shraining.' Ramu chewed his lip in concentration.
At home, Dhanno and the Marathan were at it. Dhanno recalled spotting her, the widow with whom Ramu stayed?
'He felt remorse over leaving you alone. He did not want to repeat it leaving me alone there. That is why he brought me here, that we should all be together.'
'If he could leave me alone, why not you?'
'You had the children, Bhauji, Chaiji'
'Dhanno,' the Marathan took her work hardened hand in hers, 'we go back a long way. We could not marry then because I had to not only care for my brother's children, but also arrange their marriages. We were together for years and years, but only got married about five years ago. (After Rani, thought Dhanno).
If he had left me to come back home, his reputation would have been muddied. Raghu's would have been affected. And they would have slaughtered me, a widow, remarrying and then deserted? I would have become a free-for-all. So he brought me here with him.'
Dhanno closed her eyes. 'What now?' she thought, her nebulous dream of selling the land and going away going up in smoke.
'Dhanno, what are you thinking? Did they not have more than one wife in the olden times? And lived well. We'll share and between us, keep Ramu under control. He has done manmaani long enough.'
'What control, Marathan? I was too young when he first left. But in all these years, have you controlled him? If you had, he would be here to disrupt our lives all over again,' Dhanno was bitter. 'Now, I had learnt to live without him. Why must we begin all over again? Why have you brought him back?'
The Marathan was stunned. Her act of presumed piety in bringing the Prodigal son home had turned sour. 'You don't want him here?' suspicions chased through her mind. Why? Why did Dhanno not want Ramu home? Did she have plans of her own?
The old lady was ecstatic at the return of the Prodigal. She fumed at Dhanno.
'See we have won. He has come back. What more do you want?'
Dhanno blazed back 'Am I a button to be switched on and off or a thali to be passed around?' The Marathan did not follow that exchange.
As the men walked in, the old woman chanted gleefully 'Badhaiyan, mera beta ghar aya, oh Ramji...' no-one echoed her gay sally. The consequences were too ominous. Tension clouded the homecoming.
Initially the Marathan seemed adamant, but wary of Dhanno. She watched her routinely intently. Then suddenly, one day, no one knew why, she collapsed at Dhanno's knees.
'Dhannodidi I know you have been wronged. Your life has been a hard one. But listen to mine.' 'Dhanno shrugged her off.
'What does it have to do with me?' she turned to the small window behind her.
The Marathan kept at it. 'Didi, around the time you got married to Ramu, I was widowed. I don't even remember seeing my husband. My brother took me away from my in laws beatings, to look after his ailing wife. After she died, I brought up his children and worked in the karkhana. My life was divided between the chula at home and the karkhana. For years Ramu and I bickered. We were like children. One day when he was ill, I made kaada for him and after that, things changed between us. But will people allow a widow any happiness? Whether it is the jati panchayat or the peth committee, there is little difference. When we promised him we would not marry until all his children were settled, my brother finally put his foot down and let a room to Ramu. Slowly the whole peth accepted him. Then he brought Naresh and Raghu. They are good boys.'
Dhanno turned. 'So you have taken my Raghu also'
'Not taken. He is not my son, didi, let him be our son. See, if Ramu had left me there when he wanted to come home, he would have compounded his sin of leaving you. Don't you see that? You had Bhauji and Chaiji to back you. But had Ramu deserted me, my brother would have been no armor for me, a deserted remarried widow. They would have sold me, not to the highest bidder, but to every bidder, even those who would not have paid. You are a woman. Think what would have been my fate, if Ramu did not bring me with him.'
'So he brought you. What do you want of me now? You are his wife, you say. So go to him.'
'He needs you to understand.'
'Understand what? Okay, go and tell him I have understood his needs. Tell me Marathan, you plead so eloquently for his needs. What about my needs?'
Dhanno bit her tongue sharply.
'We will be all together.'
'So?' Dhanno archly. The Marathan was silent. She knew her answer. But Ramu's?
Dhanno had something else on her mind. She thought of the real estate agent who had talked to her and Mama, the nebulous plans, the chance of getting away 'all was slipping away. She turned her back on the Marathan to grip the thick bars of her window onto the mango tree in the backyard. 'This cage is like a prison. Its hold never loosens,' she thought.
Rani had come and gone. While she was there, her father and his Marathan hung around her, pampering her. She could only sneak a few moments alone wit her mother, 'Be careful Ma. All of a sudden this longing for home. There has to be something more to it. For God's sake, don't sign any papers for anybody.'
The land and the house had been in Dhanno's name for a long long time now, in fact since soon after she took over the kheti. But it never weighed as heavy as it did now, with the question marks in everyone's eyes...
Since Ramu and his Marathan showed up, mama had made himself scarce. There was no one she could talk to. Even Rani was running scared. Her in laws asked arched questions as the word spread.
'Tell me, Marathan,' queried Dhanno, 'why did you decide to come to this village?'
'Because it is Ram's.'
'Why did Ramu decide to come ' back- for good? He had a good job. Why did he give it up? For what?'
'What good job? Who wants old people? The karkhana was going to be changed in some ways. They told all of us juna log to take a lump sum and go because we would not be able to handle the new machines.'
'So you both got lump sums. Why the village? You could have lived on in Pune.'
'Didi, with that money? It would barely buy a small kholi far from the city.'
'What about your house?'
'First we lived in my brother's house. Then when his sons married and had children, we moved out to our own kholi. But the landlord had been after us to vacate as rents had gone up and so had pagri.'
'Ramu told him that we would stay or sublet. So the landlord agreed to give us a lump sum to move out.'
'So you have that money also'
'Yes, Ramu decided to come home. Here that money would mean a very comfortable life as there is already a home and kheti.'
Chaiji's eyes narrowed as she took in this news. Dhanno mulled over it too, wondering why Ramu had not mentioned it at all. She wondered what Chaiji would tell Bhauji. Had Ramu confided in his father? Should she talk it over with the old man?
Her dilemma stood. Obviously the old people would lean towards their son. All said and one, Dhanno, despite all her slogging over the years, was bahu, daughter-in-law, outsider, wasn't she?
'That they look to me for a lead, are waiting for me to decide, was big enough itself. How long before they demand their land and house back? What will become of me then'?
Dhanno voiced these fears to Rani whom she met in the fields in private.
'Where is Raghu?' demanded Rani. 'Ma, have they mentioned him at all in all this? Where is he living if Baba has given up his house?' Mother and daughter reached home in a pother.
'Baba,' demanded Rani after the greetings, 'Where is Raghu? You haven't told me anything about him. What is he doing? Is he earning well or is it still hand-to-mouth?' this arch comment was vintage Rani.
'Raghu is in Dubai,' Ramu announced. 'He got a good offer. We paid a lump sum to the agent to send him there.'
Dhanno flew off the handle. 'Dubai? You sent my son across the seas without even telling us; and through an agent. Don't you know how these agents fleece the money and then consign them to living hells in foreign countries; and that only if they somehow manage to survive the illegal journey? Have you no sense of shame left or has Pune drunk it all? 'All her pent up frustrations were bursting out with her wild accusations. 'First you went off to find yourself another wife. Then you took my son and lost him for me. Thank God Rani did not fall for your sweet talk otherwise who knows where you would have sold her off.'
'Hold your tongue. Don't you dare accuse me...?'
'That I will. Tell me what I have said wrong. Did you not go off, leaving me to care for your parents and your kheti? Did you even bother about anything, but your karkhana and your Marathan? When Raghu was old enough to earn for you, you took him off with you. Had Rani not put her foot down, you would have done the same to her.
Now you have come back with your compensation money which you told no one about to live off the fat of the land. The house is there and so is the kheti. Dhanno kaam karegi aur hum aish karenge, taange chauri karke. Take your chauri taange and your marathan and go back to where you came from.'
Those ominous words, which had hung overhead for so long, were out!!
Even as Dhanno felt the relief of uttering what had been festering inside, she felt Bhauji advising restraint with his bony hand on her shoulder. Ramu who had barely spoken to Dhanno since he came, lashed back.
'Keh liya? Bas. This is my home, my land, my village, my kheti, my parents. I live here as a matter of right, under my father's roof. Who are you to tell me to go?'
This was a red flag to a raging bull, nay cow. Dhanno planted her hands firmly on her hips and Rani stationed herself firmly by her side.
'You want to know who I am. Let me tell you Pune wale Babu Ramuji; I am the owner of this house and this kheti. And there are legal papers to prove it. You may be Bhauji Chaiji's son and the pitiable father of Raghu and Rani. But you have never been either son, or father, or husband in any true sense. I have looked after them since I was less than ten years old. I know every detail of their requirements, what has to be done to keep them alive. In you or your Marathan's hands, they will be dead in less than a month. Is that what you want now? Beta to kha gaye ho, ab Ma-Baap ko bhi?'
'Dhanno, Raghu has only gone to Dubai. That is not the end of the world. He is making good money.'
'So good that you could retire from your job but keep it hidden from all of us? In case we snatch it? is that why?'
'You are determined to misunderstand. Why are you doing this?'
'You tell me, why are you doing this? Why have you come? Tell everyone the full truth. What else have you hidden from us?'
Tension thick enough to cut with a knife hung over the house, waiting for Ramu's answer. It was obvious that the issue could only be resolved by Ramu and Dhanno, but neither would speak.
Bhauji led Dhanno to the glade.
'Beti, manu bol. How long can we live with this tension? What are you thinking? What do you want?'
'peace, Bhauji, some peace that these two have snatched from us'
'It is his home after all' (ah, she thought, it is coming out now).
'Beti, yours too. Yours too. But '..was it like this when you went there?'
'I never met her; but yes, something from the way the women spoke; who knows, they may have told me but I didn't understand them then..'
'Tell me, what should we do now?'
Bhauji, what is there to do? Your son created this situation years ago and now he wants all the malai and the ghee as well. Why is he pestering you to transfer the house and kheti to him when he already has all his money and Raghu's and no will to work the land?'
'If it is plonked on his shoulders, he will have to work it.'
'Arre mere bhole Bhauji, he with his shaherwalli Marathan to encash it. Let me tell you, here and now, whether I stay her or not, I will not sign the house or the land over to him. It will remain in my name till I die and then it will be Rani's. Who knows one day it will be her only pillar as it is mine today. Your son will never get it.'
'Dhanno beti, where will you go?'
'Let me think about it. It is a big world.'
'Why not live together in peace?'
'Did I disrupt the peace? Your son did. Why don't you talk to him to get the truth of his intentions out of him and his Marathan?'
One morning the old people woke up to the loss of Dhanno. When she did not come back from the fields at her usual time, the Marathan bestirred herself to deal awkwardly with the lassi pot. Bhauji set off in search. Lunch was somber and then Bhauji called Rani from Ramu's mobile.
'Ma said she was going away for sometime. Let them cope with the ploughing and seeding.'
Ramu shouted exasperatedly 'This is busy season and the land agents are coming next week.'
'Bhauji,' said Rani, 'tell him to get to work and leave the agents to Ma and Mamaji.'
Ramu let out a lewd curse. His daughter turned on him with a glint in her eye 'Same to you and your Marathan. Don't forget that. In our childhood, he was the father we never had and he has paid for it with exile. '
It was a transformed Dhanno who returned weeks later. Dyed and plumed, gleaming and sleek in an expensive sari, manicured hands and feet, a chic short hairdo and a trendy purse slung on her shoulder, she walked, nay glided in, albeit a bit awkwardly, trailed by Rani. Bowing to Bhauji and Chaiji, she glanced at the Marathan, pointedly ignoring Ramu.
'Bhauji, it is all fixed. I have started my training for the kheti hotel. Rani will follow so we can run it together. The company is paying for the training and for setting up the hotel but the land will remain in my name only. Profits will be shared.'
'Listen to this fool woman. Whoever heard of such a silly scheme? What if'
Dhanno ignored him. 'Bhauji, the lawyers are drawing up the papers and Rani's husband and Mamu met the lawyers; see if your son cannot manage this season, we can hire a temporary local manager. Don't worry. Once the training is over and the hotel organized, between us, Rani and I will manage the hotel and the kheti. Just don't bother about him'
Ramu sputtered at Rani's chin thrust in his direction. The old people eyes were wet, Ramu was venomously baleful and the Marathan worried.
'Where are you living, Dhanno?' Chaiji was anxious.
'In the training hostel. Once the hotel is ready, I will go there and Rani will go for training.'
'When will you come home?'
'Here? For what? Don't worry Rani and I will come to bring your medicines and other things.'
The Marathan leapt forward and grasped Dhanno's hands. 'Didi, I did not come here to drive you from your home.'
Dhanno grasped her by the shoulders and gave her a little shake. 'It is my house. I will come and go as I please. You have no say in it. But tell us, why did you come? For what?'
The Marathan turned to look helplessly back at Ramu's blank stare.
'Go on, tell us what did you come for'no? So let me tell them. I have been hearing all that is being discussed outside these four walls. You came to sell off all the land and leave Bhauji, Chaiji and me in this little house to survive with whatever you two chose to send us. Rani is in her home and Raghu is far away, sending you money every month. You went to Western Union to collect it last week, didn't you?'
Ramu gave a furious glare and the Marathan blanched. At the gasp of the old people, Dhanno turned to them.
'Yes, the plan was to sell off all the land so now your son can turn from a karkhana labor into a big businessman in his old age. That is why I refused to sell even that one roadside field. All the land will remain in my name. And,' turning sharply to the other two,' it will be no use killing me off either. My will has been left with a safe lawyer who knew my father. And that will will never let you get your hands on the land or this house.'
Ramu was truly unmanned and it showed. 'Mama' he finally burst out.
Dhanno rained scorn on him. 'I have concerns other than those of the body. Are you going to cry about milk which was spoilt decades ago when you have brought your Marathan here so shamelessly? Your Mama went to Amrica years ago and will never come back. Yes, he is in touch with Rani and guided us about the hotel, the lawyers, everything from there. How do you think the agents found our land only, in this whole village? There are other roadside fields also. Had you not come back with your Marathan, Bhauji, Chaiji and I may have been seen America too. But may be it is in your naseeb to always be a spoiler of lives. And who can fight Naseeb?'
Quickly embracing the elders, Dhanno walked swiftly out.