It was a Friday, and it was exactly a year since granddad’s mum — my great grandmother — had passed away. Consequently, as per Hindu custom, there were special prayers, rites and rituals to perform.
Having received special dispensation from his superior, granddad returned home early from work, in order to help grandma with the preparations for the Puja1 which was to be performed by the Pandit 2 that evening. However, instead of being busy getting things ready, he found grandma sitting in the veranda, crying inconsolably. Typical woman, he thought, still crying like that over the old lady, a whole year after the latter had received the Divine call-up.
“What’s wrong, Vani? Why isn’t the stuff for the Puja ready? We don’t have a lot of time, you know!” he said a bit miffed.
But she did not budge. Granddad went up close and, crouching, cupped her sticky, wet face in both his strong, labouring hands. She obviously had been crying for a long time.
“What’s the matter, dear?” he ventured again.
“That bastard!” she exclaimed; and the floodgates opened up, as she began to cry out loud.
Instinctively, Granddad knew exactly what she meant.
“I won’t be long,” he said, hurriedly leaving her sobbing. “And tell Panditji the ceremony has been postponed.”
Sometime after granddad had left, Grandma gathered herself together and took a long, long bath, vigorously scrubbing herself several times with the coconut husk. But after the horrendous ordeal that she had been through, she felt ever so unclean, so unchaste, so…! ‘How dare he?’ She kept muttering under her breath. But dared he had, as he had done on numerous occasions with the other women on the Camp3, always picking on the young and pretty ones. And by all accounts, grandma was a real cracker in her youth!
After her bath, she prepared some coarse Mangalore rice, some lentil and some wild greens gathered from the sugar cane field nearby. This was standard fare in those days; no one had heard of balanced diets, nor could anyone afford any. No wonder, then, that life expectancy was as low as 50, with people dying of malnutrition, hard labour and unhygienic living conditions.
Once the meal was ready, grandma fed the kids and waited for her old man to return. In those days, no self-respecting Hindu woman would ever think of having her meal before her pati-parmeshwar4. She would usually eat what was left after the kids and the man of the house had finished eating. Many a time, all that remained was bits scraped from the bottom of the cooking pot. Thus malnutrition among women was rife, and many were anaemic.
It was late and pitch black when granddad returned home, unusually agitated.
“Vani, wake the kids up. We must leave quickly,” he told grandma, before she had any chance of asking where he had been or what had happened. But from the urgency of his words, she knew it was something very serious indeed. So without further ado, she began packing some clothes.
“We don’t have time for all that!” granddad yelled at her. “Just get the children out of bed and let’s get out of here.”
The old lady dutifully obeyed. The children wanted to know where they were going, but there was no time to explain. Out of the house, the whole family began to walk, then almost run towards the nearby village where granddad used to teach Hindi at the weekend. In the distance, they could hear dogs barking. These would be the ones belonging to the henchmen of Grand Missier5.
As the barking got nearer and louder, the family broke into a full gallop because, if caught, either the hounds would tear them apart or their handlers would kill them without the least compunction; and bury them in an unmarked grave in the middle of a sugar cane field. Nothing less would be considered appropriate sentence for having the nerve to give Grand Missier a whipping; and granddad was guilty of having done just that!
Thus the family kept running with all their might, the sound of the hounds gaining over them all the time. Eventually they made it to the village, where they were safe, because no hoodlum would dare enter here — the villagers would teach them a lesson they would remember all their lives. Almost instantly, the barking from the dogs started to recede, as their handlers presumably took them back to the Estate.
A couple of hundred yards further, and the family got to the Baitka6. Tired and out of breath, they could no longer keep themselves on their legs. Consequently they collapsed in a heap and the exhaustion drew them into a deep slumber.
It must have been 5 am when the first rays of the sun struck the faces of the sleeping foursome. When Granddad opened his eyes, Maharaj was just coming out of his house, bearing a wooden tray containing mugs of hot tea and freshly prepared faratas. He had seen the family from the window and guessed something awful must have happened to drive them to the Baitka — which stood on a piece of land that he had donated to the local Hindu Sabha7.
“Good morning, folks!” he said cheerily, handing over the tray to granddad.
“Namastey, Maharaj,” the family responded in unison. “Thank you very much.”
“You are very welcome.” Then turning to granddad, “Eat first, and then you can tell me what happened,” Maharaj said in a low, soft voice to granddad, as if telling him an intimate secret.
Having had no lunch or dinner the previous day, grandma and granddad were ravenous; and they ate to their fill. The children, bleary-eyed, just turned over and went back to sleep.
- Hindu priest
- Hutments for workers, provided on the sugar Estate, by the Estate
- Sugar estate owner
- Building where Hindu associations meet
- Self-help Association
“Sometime after granddad had left, Grandma gathered herself together and took a long, long bath, vigorously scrubbing herself several times with the coconut husk. But after the horrendous ordeal that she had been through, she felt ever so unclean, so unchaste, so…! ‘How dare he?’ She kept muttering under her breath. But dared he had, as he had done on numerous occasions with the other women on the Camp3, always picking on the young and pretty ones. And by all accounts, grandma was a real cracker in her youth!”
* Published in print edition on 13 June 2014