The Old Man and His God, p.10Sudha Murty
Though I did not realize this till I was a teenager, Ajji was most unlike an orthodox Brahmin widow. She was very much for women’s education, family planning and had much to say about the way society treated widows.
Those days there were few facilities available to the villages. There were a handful of medical colleges and not every taluk had a government hospital. In this scenario women who had borne children were the only help to others during childbirth. My grandmother was one of them. She was very proud of the fact that she had delivered ten perfectly healthy children, all of whom survived. And in turn, she would help others during their delivery irrespective of caste or community. She always had a word of advice or a handy tip for the various pregnant women of the village.
I would often hear various such nuggets from her. ‘Savitri, be careful. Don’t lift heavy articles. Eat well and drink more milk.’
‘Peerambi, you have had two miscarriages. Be careful this time. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits. You should be careful but don’t sit idle. Pregnancy is not a disease. You should be active. Do some light work. Send your husband Hussain Saab to my house. I will give some sambar powder. My daughter-in-law prepares it very well.’
Of course not everyone appreciated her advising them. One such person was Shakuntala Desai, who had stayed in the city for some time and had gone to school. ‘What does Ambakka know about these things?’ she would comment loudly, ‘Has she ever gone to school or read a medical book? She is not a doctor.’
But Ajji would be least bothered by these comments. She would only laugh and say, ‘Let that Shakuntala get pregnant. I will deliver the baby. My four decades of experience is better than any book!’
My father’s job took us to various towns to live in, but we always came to Ajji’s village during the holidays. They were joyous days and we would enjoy ourselves thoroughly.
Once, when we were at the village, there was a wedding in the neighbouring village. Ajji always refused to attend these social gatherings. That time, I too decided to stay back with her and one night there was only Ajji, me and our helper Dyamappa in that large house.
It was an unusually cold, moonless winter night in December. It was pitch dark outside. Ajji and I were sleeping together. Dyamappa had spread his bed on the front veranda and was fast asleep. For the first time that night, I saw Ajji remove her pallu from her head and the wisps of grey hair on her head. She touched them and said, ‘Society has some such cruel customs. Would you believe that I once had thick long plaits hanging down my back? How I loved my hair and what a source of envy it was for the other girls! But the day your grandfather died, no one even asked my permission before chopping off that beautiful hair. I cried as much for my hair as for my husband. No one understood my grief. Tell me, if a wife dies, does the widower keep his head shaved for the rest of his life? No, within no time he is ready to be a groom again and bring home another bride!’
At that age, I could not understand her pain, but now, when I recall her words, I realize how helpless she must have felt.
After sometime she changed her topic. ‘Our Peerambi is due anytime. I think it will be tonight. It is a moonless night after all. Peerambi is good and pious, but she is so shy, I am sure she will not say anything to anyone till the pain becomes unbearable. I have been praying for her safe delivery to our family deity Kallolli Venkatesha and also at the Peer Saab Darga in Bijapur. Everyone wants sons, but I do hope there is a girl this time. Daughters care for parents wherever they are. Any woman can do a man’s job but a man cannot do a woman’s job. After your Ajja’s death, am I not looking after the entire farming? Akkavva, always remember women have more patience and common sense. If only men realized that . . .’
Ajji had so many grandchildren she found it hard to remember all their names. So she would call all her granddaughters Akkavva and grandsons Bala.
As Ajji rambled on into the night, there was a knock on the door. Instinctively Ajji said, ‘That must be Hussain.’ And indeed it was. Ajji covered her head again and forgetting her griefs about widowhood, she asked quickly, ‘Is Peerambi in labour?’
‘Yes, she has had the pains since this evening.’
‘And you are telling me now? You don’t understand how precious time is when a woman is in labour. Let us go now. Don’t waste any more time.’
She started giving instructions to Hussain and Dyamappa simultaneously.
‘Hussain, cut the cactus, take a few sprigs of neem. Dyamappa, you light two big lanterns . . .
‘Akkavva, you stay at home. Dyamappa will be with you. I have to hurry now.’
She was gathering some things from her room and putting them into her wooden carry-box. By that time, the huge Dyamappa, with his large white turban on his head and massive moustaches appeared at the door bearing two lanterns. In the pitch darkness he made a terrifying picture and immediately brought to my mind the Ravana in the Ramayana play I had seen recently. There was no way I was going to stay alone in the house with him! I insisted I wanted to go with Ajji.
Ajji was impatient. ‘Akkavva, don’t be adamant. After all, you are a teenage girl now. You should not see these things. I will leave you at your friend Girija’s house.’ But like any other teenager, I was adamant and would not budge from my decision.
Finally Ajji gave up. She went to the puja room, said a quick prayer and locked the house behind her. Four of us set off in pitch darkness to Hussain saab’s house. Hussain lead first with a lantern, Ajji, with me clutching on to her hand, followed and Dyamappa brought up the rear, carrying the other lantern.
We made our way across the village. Ajji walked with ease while I stumbled beside her. It was cold and I did not know the way. All the time Ajji kept up a constant stream of instructions for Hussain and Dyamappa.
‘Hussain, when we reach, fill the large drums with water. Dyamappa will help you. Boil some water. Burn some coal. Put all the chickens and lambs in the shed. See that they don’t come wandering around . . .’
Finally we reached Hussain’s house. Peerambi’s cries of pain could be heard coming from inside.
Hussain and Peerambi lived alone. They were poor farm labourers who worked on daily wages. Their neighbour Mehboob Bi was there, attending to Peerambi. Seeing Ajji she looked relieved. ‘Now there is nothing to worry. Ambakka aai has come.’
Ajji washed her feet and hands and went inside the room with her paraphernalia, slamming the doors and windows shut behind her. Outside on the wooden bench, Hussain and Dyamappa sat awaiting further instructions from Ajji. I was curious to find out what would happen next.
Inside, I could hear Ajji speaking affectionately to Peerambi. ‘Don’t worry. Delivery is not an impossible thing. I have given birth to ten children. Just cooperate and I will help you. Pray to God to give you strength. Don’t lose courage . . .’ In between, she opened the window partly and told Hussain, ‘I want some turmeric powder. I can’t search in your house. Get it from Mehboob Bi’s house. Dyamappa, give me one more big bowl of boiling water. Hussain, take a new cane tray, clean it with turmeric water and pass it inside. Dyamappa, I want some more burning coal . . .’
The pious gentle Ajji was a dictator now!
The next few hours were punctuated by Peerambi’s anguished cries and Ajji’s patient, consoling words, while Hussain sat outside tense and Dyamappa nonchalantly smoked a bidi. The night got dark and then it started getting lighter and lighter. The cock, locked in its coop, crowed and with the rising sun we heard the sounds of a baby’s crying.
Ajji opened one window pane and announced, ‘Hussain, you are blessed with a son. He looks just like your father Mohammed Saab. Peerambi had a tough time but God is kind. Mother and child are both safe and healthy.’
S-l-a-a-m . . . the door shut again. But this time outside we grinned at each other in joy. Hussain knelt down and said a prayer of thanks. Then he jumped up and knocked on the door, wanting to see the baby. It remained shut. Ajji was not entertaining any visitors till she was done.
Hussain rushed to the bathroom, which was just a thatched partition and poured buckets of clean water from the well on himself.
Even after he rushed in, I could hear only Ajji’s voice. ‘Peerambi, my work is over. I have to rush home. Today is my husband’s death ceremony. There are many rituals to be completed. The priests will arrive any time and I have to help them. I will leave now and if you want anything, send word through Hussain.
‘Peerambi, to a woman, delivering a baby is like going to the deathbed and waking up again. Be careful. Mehboob Bi, please keep Peerambi’s room clean. Don’t put any new clothes on the baby. They will hurt him. Wrap him in an old clean dhoti. Don’t kiss the baby on his lips. Don’t show the baby to everybody. Don’t keep touching him. Boil the drinking water and immerse an iron ladle in that. Peerambi should drink only that water. I will send a pot of home made ghee and soft rice and rasam for Peerambi to eat . . . Now I have to go. Bheemappa is supposed to come and clean the garden today. If I am late, he will run away . . .’
By now she had allowed the window to be opened. I peeped in and saw the tired but joyous face of Peerambi and a tiny, chubby version of Mohammed Saab, Hussain’s father, asleep on the cane tray. The neem leaves were hanging, the cactus was kept in a corner and the fragrance of the lobana had filled the entire room. Ajji also looked tired and there was sweat on her forehead. But she was cleaning her accessories vigorously in the hot water and wiping them before placing them carefully back in her wooden box.
Just as we were about to leave, Hussain bent down and touched Ajji’s feet. In a choked voice he said, ‘Ambakka aai, I do not know how to thank you. We are poor and cannot give you anything. But I can thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart. You are a mother of a hundred children. You have blessed my son by bringing him into this world. He will never stray from the correct path.’
Ajji touched him on his shoulder and raised him. There were tears in her eyes too. She wiped them and said, ‘Hussain, God only wants us to help each other in difficult times. Peerambi is after all like another Akkavva to me.’
By now the sun was up and I followed Ajji back home without stumbling. Dyamappa was strolling lazily far behind us. One doubt was worrying me and I had to clear it. ‘Ajji, you have given birth only to ten children. Why did Hussain say you are a mother of hundred?’
Ajji smiled and adjusting the pallu that was slipping off her head because of her brisk walk, she said, ‘Yes. I have given birth only to ten children but these hands have brought out a hundred children in our village. Akkavva, I will pray that you become the mother of a hundred children, irrespective of the number you yourself give birth to.’
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This collection published 2006
Copyright © by Sudha Murty 2006
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This digital edition published in 2013.
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Sudha Murty, The Old Man and His God
The Old Man and His God by Sudha Murty / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes