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The mother i never knew, p.13
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       The Mother I Never Knew, p.13

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Rupinder loved to socialize and make friends. So she walked up to the guest house and introduced herself to Dulari, who was a middle-aged woman busy with her household chores. But Dulari was a woman of few words and they barely had a conversation.

  Two days later, Rupinder went there again and asked Dulari about Nirmala. Dulari changed the subject and told her that Nirmala needed to rest and that she did not want to meet anyone.

  After a week, Rupinder saw Nirmala for the first time. The sixteen-year-old was sitting in the veranda reading a book. When Rupinder approached the girl, she immediately understood why Nirmala did not want to meet anyone. She initiated a friendly conversation and the two women struck up a close friendship within a few weeks.

  One day, Nirmala caught hold of Rupinder’s hand and said, ‘Please don’t tell anyone about me.’

  Rupinder knew what she was talking about. Nirmala was pregnant—just like her—and the two women were expecting to deliver within a month of each other. Nirmala did not want people in the village to know about her condition and that was why everyone was told that she was suffering from an illness. She told Rupinder, ‘My husband has made me pregnant and left me. I’ll give birth to the baby here and go back to my village.’

  Rupinder realized that Nirmala was not telling her the truth, but she did not pursue the matter.

  Two months went by. One evening, Rupinder went into labour. After a long and painful night, she delivered a stillborn baby. Immediately, her parents-in-law were informed about the tragedy.

  Rupinder was overcome with sorrow. She knew that when she went back to her husband, she would have to hear her mother-in-law’s sarcastic comments in addition to dealing with the loss of her baby and being overworked. Surinder had never been a companion or shown her any form of kindness. He did not care about her at all. When she had become pregnant after years of marriage, she had dreamt of a baby who would change her life—he would hold her hand and share her difficulties when he grew up. Maybe he’d be with her in old age too. But her dreams had been shattered into tiny little pieces; she refused to eat or drink and cried all the time.

  Nirmala became concerned about her health. To distract her friend, she decided to share her story with Rupinder.

  She said that her father was Choudhary Charan Singh, who was a big zamindar and the most powerful man in his village. He was a large-hearted but a short-tempered man and viewed the world in black and white. People were either his friends or his enemies. He had two stepbrothers who loathed him and often taunted him, ‘What’s the use of all your land and money if there is no male heir to succeed you?’

  The comment always irked Choudhary. He only had a daughter while his stepbrothers had two sons each. Choudhary thought about it and decided to marry his daughter into an influential family. Then his stepbrothers would not be able to pass any more comments.

  His good friend, Lal Mohan, was a zamindar in a nearby village. If Nirmala married Lal Mohan’s son, Brij Mohan, then that would make their position stronger in both their villages and they would have a better political future together. Choudhary had heard that Brij Mohan was soft on women and liquor but this did not bother him. It was common in their culture, after all. So he promised his friend that when the time came, Brij Mohan would become his son-in-law. Lal Mohan was happy with the alliance. Not only was Nirmala a good-looking girl, but his son would also get all the votes from Choudhary’s village.

  Meanwhile, Nirmala was blissfully unaware of her father’s future plans and started studying at home by herself due to the absence of a high school in the village. Diligently, she worked day and night in preparation for her tenth class exams.

  Time passed and seasons changed. Soon, it was winter.

  One day, a young and handsome college student came to study the old monuments on the outskirts of the village for a history project, and rented out a room. When he went to buy some bananas, the shopkeeper told him, ‘Why don’t you go to Choudhary’s house and talk to him? He’ll definitely assist you if you need help with the project.’

  When the young man met Choudhary Charan Singh, he was scared. The zamindar was a tall, hefty man with a big moustache and a perpetual scowl on his face. He asked the boy in an authoritative voice, ‘Who are you?’

  ‘I am Anand and I’ve come to your village for six months to work on a history project for my college. I’ll be grateful if you would be kind enough to introduce me to somebody who can take me around the village or the areas nearby based on my project’s requirements.’

  ‘Where are you staying right now?’

  ‘I’m staying in a musafirkhana near the Hanuman temple.’

  Choudhary took pity on the young boy and said, ‘Well, you can stay in my outhouse from tonight. Don’t worry about food. We’ll make sure that you get food every day.’

  Anand was surprised by Choudhary’s generosity and thanked him profusely. Soon, he settled into a routine. He left the outhouse every morning after breakfast and came back in the evening in time for dinner.

  One day, he saw a girl applying mehendi on her hand in the backyard. She looked like she was a few years younger than him. There was something so attractive about her that he could not stop staring. When she saw him looking at her, she was startled and ran inside the house, leaving the mehendi behind. Anand went closer to where she had been sitting and saw a tenth-grade English textbook next to the bowl of mehendi. He realized that she must be the zamindar’s daughter.

  In the evening, Anand went and met Choudhary. He told him, ‘Sir, I know English very well. If you’d like, I am available to teach the language to anyone who might be interested.’

  Choudhary replied, ‘We don’t have a good English teacher in this village. In fact, there is no high school here either. So my daughter, who is in the tenth grade, is studying on her own. Why don’t you teach her for as long as you are here?’

  Anand nodded happily.

  He started teaching Nirmala twice a week. At first, she was shy and awkward but, slowly, they became friends. Still, she completely ignored him when Choudhary was at home, and maintained a distance.

  One day, Anand slipped during one of his monument expeditions and sprained his ankle. When Choudhary did not see him for three days, he asked Nirmala, ‘Where is Anand these days?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ she said.

  Choudhary ordered the cook, ‘Go right now and find out what’s happened to the boy.’ He turned to Nirmala and said, ‘I would have asked your mother to do it but she’s not yet back from her pilgrimage. I hope that the boy has eaten something in the last few days. I don’t want anybody to go hungry in my house.’

  When Choudhary learnt that Anand could not walk for a few days, he told his daughter, ‘Ensure that he gets all his meals in his room.’

  Nirmala nodded and diligently brought food for Anand three times a day. During one such visit at lunch, Anand touched Nirmala’s hand as he took the food tray from her. At first, her hand shook a little. It felt new and different, but she did not push him away and accepted it shyly. Anand understood that she liked him too and they started spending a lot of time together after that.

  9

  A Journey Continued

  Within a few months, Nirmala appeared for her exams and passed with flying colours. Choudhary thanked Anand and gave him an expensive gift before he left the village and went back to the city. That same month, Nirmala skipped her period and did not even notice. Soon, she started feeling nauseous; she thought that it was indigestion. After three months, she finally realized what was wrong with her. She recalled the two rifles decorating the family room and became frightened of what her father would say and do. What if he wanted to kill her? She had no idea that her relationship with Anand could result in a pregnancy!

  Nirmala did not have the courage to tell her mother, nor did she have any friends who could keep her secret. But she trusted Dulari, the maid in t
he house. Somehow, she told Dulari the truth, who in turn conveyed the bad news to her mother. At first her mother slapped and cursed her, before she sat down and burst out crying. That same evening, Dulari brought a herbal medicine from the local doctor to induce an abortion, but it did not help.

  Now, Nirmala’s mother had no choice but to tell her husband. Choudhary was livid and beat his daughter mercilessly. She had brought shame upon the family and he wanted to murder her since but she was his only child, eventually common sense prevailed. Moreover, if he killed her, his hateful stepbrothers and their children would get his property and money. He was very upset with his wife for leaving their daughter unsupervised with Anand.

  Choudhary thought about the problem for a few days and came up with a plan. He did not want Nirmala to marry the city boy; Anand was from a different community and belonged to a poor family. So Choudhary decided that he would give his daughter’s baby away and then get her married to Lal Mohan’s son, as planned.

  But Nirmala was already starting to show. Choudhary did not want anybody to see her or know about the illegitimate child. He decided that it was time to send her somewhere far away for the delivery; she could come back after leaving the baby there. After a few days he told his wife, ‘I have made all the arrangements. My cousin has an isolated farmhouse around two hundred kilometres from here, but he lives in Bombay. I’ve talked to him and told him that Nirmala is unwell and needs a change. So I will send her there with Dulari, but you will stay here with me. Otherwise, people may start doubting our story. Please tell Dulari about my instructions. I don’t care if Nirmala gives birth to a boy or a girl. The child should be given away or left there. Nirmala must come back alone.’

  ‘But . . .’

  ‘Let me finish. It is Dulari’s job to get rid of the baby. We will pay her handsomely for her silence. Once Nirmala is back, I’ll get her married and we’ll have a grand wedding.’

  Three days later, Choudhary and his wife sent Nirmala and Dulari to the farmhouse.

  *

  When Nirmala ended her story, Rupinder felt grateful for the life she had.

  Nirmala said sadly, ‘At least you have a life ahead. But my future is not mine at all. How am I going to just throw my child away? And if I don’t, I know for certain that my father will kill both of us. He’s a very powerful man. There’s no escape for me.’

  ‘But my life is a desert too. My baby was supposed to be my oasis. He was the one who would have brought happiness into my life,’ Rupinder countered.

  That same evening, her thoughts turned towards Nirmala, ‘She’s going to return to the village after she gives birth, but where’s she going to leave her baby?’ Suddenly, a thought struck Rupinder and she walked over to Nirmala’s house.

  Luckily, it was Nirmala herself who opened the main door. Rupinder blurted out, ‘Will you give me your baby? It will give me someone to live for. I promise you that I will look after him very well.’

  Nirmala was so taken by surprise that she stepped back and lost her footing. Rupinder rushed inside to help her to the nearest chair.

  A few hours later, Nirmala’s labour pains began. Between her painful contractions, she removed the gold chain from around her neck and gave it to Rupinder. She said, ‘I know that you’ll love my baby with all your heart. This chain is all that I’ve brought here with me, Rupinder. Please keep it and give it to my baby. Promise me that you’ll take this secret to your grave.’

  ‘I will. I won’t tell anyone—not even the baby,’ promised Rupinder.

  Nine long hours later, Nirmala delivered a healthy baby boy in the wee hours of the morning. Exhausted, she held the baby tightly and then fell asleep.

  Dulari wondered what they should do next.

  Rupinder suggested, ‘Leave the baby on the steps of the temple around seven in the morning. I’ll pretend that I went there to pray and found the baby.’

  Dulari nodded wordlessly and Rupinder went home.

  Early in the morning, Nirmala saw her baby boy for the last time. She cried and touched his feet, ‘Beta, please forgive me. I didn’t know how a child was born and I brought you into this world in my ignorance. I don’t know what your future holds, but I can’t just leave you somewhere to die of hunger or cold. Rupinder is a nice woman. At the very least, she’ll ensure your survival and you won’t grow up as an illegitimate child. I pray to God that no woman gets punished the way that I’m getting punished now.’

  She closed her eyes and gave the baby to Dulari, ‘Take him before I change my mind.’ She added, ‘Pack everything quickly. We’re going back home in a few hours.’

  As per plan, Rupinder went to the temple at seven. A crowd had already gathered around the abandoned baby and Dulari was keenly observing the drama from a distance.

  Somebody asked, ‘Who has left this baby here?’

  People shrugged their shoulders.

  ‘Which community is he from?’

  ‘Has a woman in the village delivered recently?’

  ‘Is the baby from another town?’

  Nobody knew anything. Finally, an old man said, ‘I was here outside the temple last night and saw a couple come in a car, but it was too dark to see anything else. Later, I tripped on the steps and thought that something was there, but I didn’t bother to check.’

  ‘Well, we can’t just leave the baby here. Who’s willing to take care of him temporarily?’ a man asked.

  Sensing her opportunity, Rupinder said sadly, ‘My baby died a few days ago and I don’t know what to do with myself. If you allow me, I would like to look after the baby. I’ll stay here for at least a month and wait for someone to claim him. If nobody turns up, then I’ll adopt the baby and take him with me to my husband’s home.’

  It was a good solution and everyone nodded in approval.

  Rupinder picked up the newborn and hugged him. She sighed with relief, ‘Munna, you are safe!’

  Immediately, milk started filling her breasts and she ran home to feed the baby.

  Rupinder waited for a month but as anticipated, nobody came forward to claim Munna. After another week, she went back to Jalna. Nobody came to pick her up from the railway station because Surinder’s family was unhappy that she was bringing back an orphan with her. Conveniently, her mother-in-law blamed Munna’s dark patch for the loss in the family’s business and started treating him badly. Not surprisingly, Surinder also felt that the child should be sent back to where he came from or left in a gurdwara orphanage. Left with no suitable alternative to ensure a better future for Munna, Rupinder gave him to Sumati.

  *

  Mukesh felt like he was in a nightmare. He had never even considered the possibility that he might be an illegitimate child. Now he understood why Surinder gave him up so easily, why nobody came to see him or ever inquired about him. But Rupinder had saved him from being a child left in a garbage can, raised on the streets. She had brought him to Jalna and taken care of him for as long as she could.

  Rupinder looked at him with love, ‘Munna, God has punished me for my sins. I was never able to get pregnant after that one time. Sometimes I felt that I made a big mistake in letting you go. I should have kept you with me. But if I had done that, you would have been a coolie or a worker in somebody’s house today. I wouldn’t have been able to do what Sumati has done for you. How do I thank her for taking care of you so well?’

  Mukesh was speechless. It was very hard for him to absorb that he was born out of wedlock and simply abandoned, that he was an unwelcome guest to this world. ‘What am I supposed to do now? What kind of a journey have I been on—born somewhere and brought up as someone else? Who am I—a Hindi-speaking Jat, a Punjabi-speaking sardar or a Kannada-speaking south Indian? Or will Nirmala tell me another story?’

  Rupinder went inside the house to bring food for him. When she came back, he asked, ‘Where is Nirmala Kumari now? Do you have her address?’


  ‘I don’t know. But her husband Brij Mohan is a minister in Delhi. I’ve seen them on television sometimes, but I don’t have any contact with her.’

  Mukesh did not ask her for more information.

  He was unhappy seeing Rupinder’s condition. His mother should not be working in her old age. The least he could do was to make her comfortable in this phase of her life. He told Rupinder, ‘I’ll send you money every month so that you don’t have to cook for someone else. Please don’t worry. The money I will send is my hard-earned money from London. I’ll also talk to Gurpreet and buy a small house in Amritsar so that you can visit the gurdwara every day. Tell me, do you still feed orphans on Buddha Purnima?’

  ‘Yes, beta, of course. You were born on that day. That’s why I feed people in whatever capacity I can.’ She paused. ‘I didn’t look after you with the expectation of you helping me in my old age. Wahe Guru has been kind and I still have some strength left. I can work and provide for myself. I don’t need charity, Munna.’

  ‘I am not helping you out of charity. It is a son’s duty to care for his mother. You looked after me and I’m so glad that you did.’

  Mukesh touched her feet, ‘Please bless me so that I may reach the end of this journey and find myself.’

  Rupinder smiled and placed her hand on his head.

  10

  The Final Stop

  From the Amritsar railway station, Mukesh phoned his wife. ‘Vasanthi, I need your help but I don’t have much time to talk right now. How are you?’

  ‘I’m all right. What do you need?’ she asked immediately.

  ‘How much money do I have in my bank account there?’

  ‘Why?’

  He was brief, ‘I’ll tell you later.’

  Vasanthi replied, ‘I think it’s approximately one crore rupees.’

  ‘The thing is . . . I want to write a cheque for sixty lakhs to someone,’ he told her.

 
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