-Written By Vartika Sharma Lekhak
(Reading Time: 13 min Approx)
Sudha Chachi lifted the sack of freshly plucked soft corns on her head and started back home. She looked up in the sky. The sun was in its last quarter. There were so many tasks pending before the guests arrived tomorrow.
‘Chachi…Chachi…O Chachi, where are you running away with the loot? Or is there a poor witch you are hiding in your sack?’
Her face broke into a toothless grin as she chided the naughty group of children walking beside her, mimicking her limped walk. She waved the cane stick at them in a mock anger and the flock scurried away laughingly. Be it an old man or a young child, the whole village called her Chachi, an aunt, adoringly.
When Sudha had first arrived in this village, as a young bride to a man fifteen years her senior, she was a shy girl. For every small little thing, she depended on the elders of the house. She had always lived a sheltered life, which was restricted to taking care of the cattle and later children. From the cultivation of the land to buying daily necessities from the market, everything was taken care of by her husband and his farm helps. Thus, when her husband’s sudden demise left her alone with the two girls, everyone in the village advised her to move back to her parent’s house and put the fields on a lease. Her husband’s brothers offered to take care of the expenses and other financial matters.
The traditions, after all, made the men guardian of the family and everything that came with it. But to everyone’s astonishment, she was out on the fields within a week. She supervised everything closely, even cut the harvest herself when the laborers didn’t turn up. Her clothes would drench in sweat, and soil smudged the face but she worked shoulder to shoulder with an indomitable spirit. Initially, the community expressed the disapproval but gradually it steered towards acceptance and finally a grudging admiration because Sudha knew that her strength was the only rope which would pull her and the daughters’ out of this abyss.
After selling off half of the land, the daughters left for the city as brides to two young men working in a factory. Many times, the daughters had asked her to come and live with them. But she knew too well that some rules of the society should not be twisted.
‘I am not alone. My buffaloes and this Neem tree are my companion girls,’ she told them, ‘Arre (Hey) they talk to me when you are gone.’
The Summer Vacations were the best time of the year for Sudha Chachi. She would wait eagerly for these two months. She would stop every passer-by to inform them that the children were arriving. In fact, it was not only Chachi but the whole village that waited eagerly for the daughters and their four children. The children would entertain everyone with the pranks and their city-bred ways. It was fun to watch the transformation in Sudha Chachi. Her preparations would go on for weeks, stocking their favourite cereals, fruits, vegetables, etc. She would dry sliced mangoes, potatoes, peas. Tangy pickles in clay jars would be prepared in various flavours. The milk which was otherwise sold at the dairy would be stopped, so that more ghee can be churned out of it. This will be used to prepare mouth-watering jaggery and groundnut sweets which the girls will carry back home for their husbands.
Sudha dumped the sack under the Neem tree in the centre of the courtyard. The courtyard was an open and wide ground which was plastered with mud and cow-dung. Kitchen area and one store-room were to the one side, and two more rooms and cattle shed were on the other. The rooms were only used when there were guests. Rest of the days Chachi cooked, bathed, worked and snored under the shade of the Neem tree. The bells jingled as the buffaloes shook their head vigorously at the sight of their mistress. Their udder was heavy with milk, but Sudha had to first take care of one more important task. She went to her neighbour Kanta’s house. The staff in her hand click-clacked like the sound of a galloping horse as she quickened her pace.
‘Chachi, how young you look today, just like a bride’, Kanta teased her.
‘You and your foolish talks,’ Chachi diverted the conversation. ‘Give me some rope if you have, I need to tie the swings on the Neem before it gets dark.’
‘Chachi why you want to take a risk at this age, I will send someone to help you out,’ the young woman said as she coiled the rope in a bun. Sudha took no offense for being called lame; she knew that the adjective signified her strength. Once, while returning from the fields in the late evening she was attacked by a pack of hyenas. Seeing no alternative, she jumped into twenty feet well having knee-deep water. The beasts circled the well hungrily and their howl echoed in its closed walls. But Sudha braved it all, the bone-chilling December night and her twisted leg. In morning villagers pulled her out. The tale became a legend of the village, which mothers loved to use as a bedtime story for their naughty children.
The storytellers crafted the incident into a magical tale, by adding more creatures to that night, including imaginary beasts and witches. Chachi was reborn from this fantasy as a sorceress or a fairy godmother. Her cane became a magic wand and the limp a battle injury for her awestruck young admirers.
By the time Kanta’s son arrived, Sudha had already fastened the ropes on the lower branches of the tree and fixed a small bed of choir at the bottom. She had also milked the buffaloes, dusted the borrowed extra beds and churned out fresh butter from the curd. She sat down with a glass of jaggery tea and three bajra chapatti.
The sound of the calf echoed in the still of the night.
‘Yes, Yes, I know you are also going restless to meet them,’ Chachi caressed the week’s old baby who was tied to the end of her cot. Her wrinkled face broke into a smile at the memory of her eldest grandchild Sarla, who was the naughtiest one among all. One night when all the elders were sleeping, Sarla along with her sibling brigade unleashed the two other calves and hid them in the storeroom. They had planned to sneak them out in the morning and set them free. They even camouflaged the unsuspecting animals in some strange attire.
How shocked was everyone the next morning, when the calves, at last bored of their plan, escaped from the room. Wrapped in two bright sarees and hats tied to their head with strings, they looked so ridiculously funny. More drama was to follow when the daughters recognized the sarees and went wild with fury when they noticed the holes in them.
Sudha Chachi tried to diffuse the situation but like two mad women they ran after the children with sticks in hand. But the little ones had thought of everything. Before they could catch them, they were up on the Neem tree. The neighbours were watching the drama gleefully. The scene had added some colour to their mundane routine. At last, the women calmed down after Chachi gave them a stern warning for behaving this childishly.
Chachi pulled out the end of her saree that the calf was chewing softly.
‘You are as mischievous as them, you little devil.’ How excited the kids will be to see him, she thought happily. Chachi pulled out a piece of broken mirror from under the cot. She stared at her reflection. Her vacant eyes were filled with tears of joy and anticipation.
The scars of chickenpox on her cheeks looked so smooth today. Softly with a finger, she traced the wrinkle lines under her eyes. She rubbed her cheek into the soft fur of the animal and cooed, ‘Kanta was not lying, see how young I look today.’