“Mummy can we wash clothes?”
“Wash clothes?” Kirti was surprised.
“Yes. We saw the ladies wash clothes by the well. We drew a bucket of water too. We wanted to help them but they didn’t let us. Now we want to wash clothes by the hand pump. Can we?” Shikha jumped up and down in excitement while Rajani stood by expectantly in silent but obvious support.
“Clothes have all been washed.” Kirti said shortly and went back to cooking.
“Mummy please! Our clothes are dirty we can wash these.” Shikha disappeared. Rajani gave Kirti an apprehensive glance before following Shikha. They quickly changed clothes and carried them out to the hand pump.
“Arre what are you girls doing?”
“Nothing Biji, just washing clothes,” Shikha said demurely, “we want to learn how.”
“Hmpph,” grunted Biji, “finally showing some sense.”
Shikha and Rajani grinned triumphantly at each other, now Kirti wouldn’t be able to object, they would get tips from Biji and get into her good books. “Tell us what to do Biji,” pleaded Shikha.
Under Biji’s eagle eye and exacting standards, the girls got their first tutorial on washing clothes and an earful each. They escaped a thrashing only by virtue of being girls and the fact that Rajani was, all said and done, a guest.
It was all going well. They splashed about and made mounds of lather, blew into each other, got completely soaked, held two ends of a frock and twisted it until all the water had been wrung out, just like Biji told them to. And then came the final step. Hanging up the wash on the clothesline, which was a bit high for them. They dragged a stool to reach the clothesline. Unmindfully, Shikha stood on the edge of the stool and leaned too much. As she fell, she very naturally grabbed at the string for support. Unable to bear the weight, the string snapped.
All the clothes, Shikha and even Rajani (who was near) all fell down with a crash.
But it was Biji’s shriek that brought everybody running. After assuring herself that the girls weren’t injured, she went off on a tirade that hurt more than the fall. Lalit picked up the girls and sat them down for a quiet game of Snakes and ladders while Kirti had to wash and put the clothes to dry all over again.
Lunch was delayed by almost an hour.
Later that evening, the girls accompanied Kirti to ‘see’ the new bride. A fairly simple and exciting event one would think. But in reality it was anything but – first there was the incident regarding the gift for the ‘munhdikhayi’ custom.
Biji wanted Lallu to give a gift befitting her status as an affluent (if not the most affluent) member of the village not to mention the proud mother of a successful city businessman.
“Eleven thousand rupees!” Kirti was aghast. “Did they even spend so much on the wedding?” she asked scathingly. “And are you even carrying so much cash?” she asked her husband.
“Now now Kirti,” Lalit shushed her, “don’t be so snobbish okay. People out here spend more than we do in cities on weddings. Shagun amount is a matter of pride and honor, theirs, Biji’s and mine. What will they think about us? Actually I think I should give even more. If Biji had warned me earlier, I would have brought more.”
“More?” screeched Kirti.
“What happened Bahu?”
Kirti hurriedly pulled the dupatta over her head. “Nothing. I was just telling him that we don’t have so much cash…” she began in a low tone.
“Yes, yes I know,” Biji cut in briskly. “Don’t worry Lallu, I know it’s my fault. I forgot to warn you. Anyway here, take 10,000 from my side, you can give it back to me when you come next time.”
“Twenty one thousand rupees!” Kirti’s voice rose in horror.
“Yes so?” Biji stared at Kirti, “my son is a rich man. He should give this and more. The new bride will be coming to meet me later. For that event also I have kept something aside. After all it is a question of our status. Besides, this is the village chief’s son’s wedding, not some riff raff. Now Bahu, be sure to hand over the money to the bride’s mother-in-law not to the bride.”
Kirti gave one final glare to her husband and made to go when Biji snapped, “Bahu are you going wearing that?”
Kirti looked down at her clothes. “Yes, any problem?”
“Any problem?” Biji was aghast. “Such ordinary everyday clothes? No no, it wont do.”
“Well I just have these,” Kirti said with some satisfaction, “besides Biji, this may look simple, but they are very expensive designer…”
Biji raised her hands, “I don’t care, you are not going wearing that,” she cast a disparaging look at the girls who were hovering by the doorway, “as it is their clothes are bad enough. Wait.” She disappeared.
“Now what?” Kirti threw off the dupatta in frustration. As it is, it was so hot and on top it a dupatta draped over the head was so irritating not to mention suffocating. Blast Biji and her ‘status, honor, pride’ drama. Kirti couldn’t help swearing to herself.
“Here, wear this.” Biji thrust a bright multicolored glittering salwar-suit with a huge dupatta.
Kirti was horrified. “Biji! I can’t wear this!” she cast a pleading look at her husband.
“Hello?” Lalit promptly walked out of the room with the cellphone stuck to his ear.
“Biji please. Look it’s twice my size.” She held up the kurta.
Biji waved her hand dismissively. “Doesn’t matter. Wear that red salwar of yours and just change the kurta and dupatta. In any case, most of the kurta, especially the upper part wont be seen as it will be covered by the dupatta. Now hurry up and change,” her tone brooked no opposition.
Fuming, Kirti went off to change and reappeared her face reflecting the color of the kurta.
Biji looked at her critically and helped her drape the heavily ‘zarified’ dupatta. “Hmm, I guess this will have to do,” Biji pursed her lips, “at least put on some more make up. Use a brighter color lipstick, some blush on…you live in a city and don’t know anything even about make up?” she scoffed. “Come here, I will do it for you,” she offered generously, “and take these bangles. Wait I will get a heavier gold chain for you.” By the time Biji was done with Kirti, she was quite outshone the summer Sun.
Kirti stared at herself in the mirror in utter dismay. Her thick kohl-lined eyes were enough to scare away the ghastliest of ghosts abounding the village. Her lips dripped blood as did her fangs. “Biji,” she muttered faintly.
“Yes, now you are looking like a someone who is worthy of being my bahu,” Biji beamed her satisfaction. Kirti’s heart sank – what a price to pay for Biji’s approval. How could she risk annoying her and ruin all chances of a relatively peaceful stay here. But then again, could she go out looking like an escaped clown?
Steeling herself, Kirti turned around for the acid test. “How do I look?”
The girls stared at her.
“Well?” she asked with a touch of hysteria in her voice, “how do I look?”
“Different!” burst out Rajani, while Shikha wailed, “Mummeeee.” Her lower lip trembled.
“She looks beautiful doesn’t she?” Biji cracked the whip. “Come on now go and visit the Sarpanch’s house.”
Kirti looked around wildly for her husband, perhaps he could knock some sense into Biji’s head, “Where’s your father?” she urgently motioned Shikha.
Shikha was quick on the uptake – if anyone could extract her mum from all this muck it was him. “Papaaaa,” she ran off to find him while Rajani stood there stealing glances at Kirti once in a while.
“What is it Shikha?” Lalit entered the room protesting. One glance at his wife and he stopped short. Given a choice he would have done an about turn and driven off to Chandigarh right there and then. But he was caught between the devil and the deep. Two pairs of eyes glared at him, challenging, daring…
“Wow Kirti,” he said weakly, “I can barely recognize you.”
“Is that good or bad?” she asked in dangerous voice.
“Great! Exactly what I was saying. Now she looks like one of us. Go on.” Biji gave Kirti a little push.
Kirti continued to glare at Lalit.
He coughed. “Yes go on Kirti. Don’t dawdle.” She looked at him disbelievingly. “Err Kirti, why don’t you wear your dark glasses? The bright sunshine hurts your eyes doesn’t it?” he held out her huge sunglasses pleadingly.
She grabbed them and slipped them on. Shikha clapped her hands. “Oh you look like my Mummy again.” She threw her arms around her.
Even Biji nodded approvingly. “Yes that looks grand.”
Kirti dared to look in the mirror again. Yes, this was an infinitely more tolerable image. Not only was all that eye-make up tucked out of sight, but the bling was dulled and the bloody lips were now a sober maroon – well what she couldn’t see…
Her lips parted in a grimace. “Let’s go,” she intoned in a chilling voice. Shikha straightened her dress and patted her hair though Rajani shrank back. “I don’t want to go,” she mumbled. A shiver ran down her spine. Aunty had turned into a vampire – maybe some Bhoot had bitten her…what if she bit her too?
For once Biji was on her side. “Yes she can stay back with me.”
“No! I don’t want to go alone,” Shikha stamped her foot and dragged Rajani ignoring her protests and pleas.
“Kirti! Smile please,” before Kirti could object, Lalit had snapped a few priceless photographs. He would use them as leverage to win many a battle in the future.
“You…” Kirti began furious with her husband but Biji stepped in, “Go on now, hurry it’s getting late.”
Muttering dire threats and curses under her breath Kirti strode off with her entourage. There was quite a crowd at the Sarpanch’s house, which automatically parted for the vision in red. All fears and embarrassment at being overdressed and glittery vanished as she found herself one with the gathered equally, if not more dazzling crowd. Biji was right after all, she thought grudgingly. But she couldn’t make peace with her eye-make up and firmly held on to the dark glasses. Besides she didn’t want to risk freaking out the girls.
The visit went off very well – their generous ‘gift’ was much appreciated and they were accorded welcome and status-befitting relatives of grand old Biji of the village – even Rajani passed with flying colors despite an attack of giggles. More importantly, rave reviews reached a gratified and triumphant Biji – so much so that she even contemplated permanently gifting the heavy chain to her youngest daughter-in-law. But a timely reminder of her darling Lallu’s unfortunate son-less state by the village gossip prevented this.
“What a wonderful village you have Shikha,” Rajani mumbled sleepily after yet another delicious meal. “I wonder why you don’t like to come here for your vacations! There is so much to see, so much to do. I would love to come here for vacations always. I wonder why we never go to our grandmother’s place?”
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