“Yes?!” Biji roared. “You dare ‘yes’ me? How dare you make my boys work like common laborers? What’s wrong with you lazy nincompoops? Have you got mehndi on your hands or what? Go to the Sarpanch’s house and see – yesterday married and today washing clothes of the entire household. A whole weeks’ backlog,” she said with some satisfaction. “My lenient behavior has spoilt you all. If you all had gotten married in such a family then you would have come to your senses. Why are you torturing my darling innocent playful boys? Just for those idiotic nonsensical girls?”
Ahhh, such sweet music the boys had never heard – all the angst and fiery resentment festering in their bosoms for the past few hours or so washed away in a second by their savior. “Biji!” they ran to her and hugged her.
“Awww my darlings! Poor babies. Just you wait you good for nothing girls,” she shook her fist at the girls who instantly disappeared from the window. Robbed of her rightful target and unwilling to shake off the boys still clinging to her (and the stairs were a daunting uphill task) she rounded upon the dumbstruck women of the house, “Hear me clearly – I will not have the boys doing any of the household menial tasks. Do you hear me?”
“But Biji,” one dared to object, “they needed to be punished…”
“Punished!” Biji roared, “for what? Being boys? For having a little fun? And if that Maharani cannot accept little bit of teasing she should not have moved out of her house. I don’t know what the world is coming to – sending their daughter girl to another’s place without teaching her any manners. She should adjust to our ways or we should? Tomorrow she will get married and go to a different house, will people kowtow to her? And if they don’t, will she punish her husband?”
“Yes, yes Biji,” seeing the situation spinning out of control, Kirti intervened, “I am sorry Biji. Forgive her Biji. She is just a little girl. She will learn soon enough. I am sure later, everything will be alright.”
“Hmmph.” Biji grunted. “The sooner she learns the norms of the society, the better it will be for all concerned. Tell that girl – that girls should not be heard and preferably not seen. She should focus on honing her housekeeping skills not be dancing and prancing all over the village like some hoyden! And if she must, let her go alone, why is she leading my granddaughter astray?” she looked at Kirti scathingly. “All your fault. Do you or do you not have any sense?”
“Yes Biji,” Kirti lowered her flashing eyes and said penitently, “I am sorry Biji. I will keep this in mind in the future.”
“Hmmph. Okay okay fine. Enough time wasted already. Make something special for the boys,” she ordered. “What will you have dears?” her voice was honey and sugar. A clamor of demands rose, Biji waved an imperious hand and ordered her slaves, “Make whatever they want. Now let me rest. I am tired. I can’t leave house for a minute even. No peace for me in this life.”
The saving grace of the entire brouhaha was that the girls couldn’t follow much of the conversation. They of course gathered that Biji wasn’t very pleased with them, especially Rajani, but the exact nature of her scathing, derogatory comments and suggestions remained obscure.
An uneasy peace descended upon the kiddie gang even as the battle lines were drawn. The girls retreated to the safety of proximity to the ladies of the house – primarily Kirti. Biji was clearly not on their side and they weren’t too sure about the mindset of their Taijis and thought it best to give her a wide berth till they were sure which way the wind blew in those quarters.
The boys of course had not forgotten nor forgiven the girls for wasting one whole morning on ‘female tasks’. That was what rankled the most not the thrashing. For the boys, a thrashing was par for the course. Scars and bruises were a matter of pride and honor to be displayed and bragged about. The boys had only two things on their minds – food and how to make the most of the holidays. And if that involved making the girls cry, well, they wouldn’t shy away from it! Besides they wanted their pound of flesh and blood. They bided and waited their chance at revenge.
After the fracas between the boys and the girls, taking advantage of Lalit’s absence, Biji tightened the screws on the girls. They were instructed to assist the women folk in the kitchen and outside.
“It’s time they learnt how a house runs,” Biji declared. “What will happen when they get married? How will they adjust in their sasural? The new bride is only a few years older than these two girls and look at her! She knows how to cook, knit, wash clothes, work in the fields, everything. Come on girls, help your Tai rinse the clothes.” She went back to pulling the hookah.
Keeping a sharp lookout for the boys, the girls emerged from their self-imposed jail quite happily. It was fun splashing about in the water, cranking the handle (they had got the knack of it by now and loved seeing thick column of the cool water gush out), the spray of water as Taiji briskly jerked the clothes. The girls quite enjoyed themselves.
Even kneading the dough was a fun-filled event causing much merriment amongst the women – particularly when Rajani had an attack of giggles as Shikha got stuck in a sticky gooey mess. She looked like somebody from outer space and the harder she tried to clean herself the messier she became. Oh how Rajani laughed and laughed – she rolled about so much that even Biji deigned to smile. Of course Shikha was not much amused and made her objections pretty clear. Finally Kirti dragged a kicking and screaming Shikha to the hand pump and gave her a thorough scrub. Her only saving grace was that the boys weren’t around to witness her complete humiliation.
Rajani wasn’t quite as lucky.
A couple of days later, some relatives of the Sarpanch (also distant relatives of Biji) had been invited for lunch. Usually the children sat around on the floor of the verandah just outside the kitchen and they were served parathas with generous dollops of butter, curd and pickle. Biji of course sat on her throne overseeing the affairs with a steely eye. When the children had been fed to their satisfaction, she allowed her self to be served on a stool of a convenient height and only then could the women of the house eat.
But today, in deference to the guests, the boys were tucked away out of sight in a separate room while the girls were expected to serve the guests. Eager to show off her newly acquired housekeeping skills, Rajani skipped in with a jug full of water. She spilled some water and then promptly slipped on it – giving their esteemed guests an unexpected bath.
The ensuing crash and accompanying synchronous roar brought everybody out including the boys who had been busy squabbling amongst themselves over the last paratha in the hotbox.
Quite a priceless scene met their eyes – antiquated guests sitting in a half circle staring woodenly at a spread-eagled Rajani as water dripped down various parts of their anatomy.
And then the obvious (at least to us) happened. Rajani had one of her worst attacks. Unmindful of the spectacle she made or of the fierce frowns Biji threw her way or Kirti’s concerned questions, she lay on the floor trembling violently. Initially worried that she was hurt, Kirti helped her up but then gave up as Rajani lolled about on the floor ROFL quite uncontrollably. The gathered crowd viewed the unlikely scene in dazed silence – it was the victim’s prerogative to cry while the spectators had the right to laugh at her predicament.
But this girl had broken all traditional norms and societal trends and now the spectators were at a loss. They didn’t quite know what their cue was in such a dramatically reversed situation – surely they weren’t expected to burst into tears?
An aging crusty grandfather was the first to react (err succumb to the infectious giggles). He guffawed and chortled, slapping his thigh unbridled in delight. The rest followed suit. Biji and Kirti drew relieved breaths. It was after all summers and a little bit of water never hurt anybody. Rajani was taken away for a change of clothes and scenery. As fallout of her ignominious fall, Rajani found some favor in the eyes of the boys (if not Biji) and extra shagun from the grand old man for the entertainment she unwittingly provided.
Slowly the days settled into a sort of pattern and as the initial newness wore off, boredom crept in. Most of the mornings the girls were given some task or the other – fold those clothes, clean the almirah, wring out the clothes, knead the dough (Rajani had become quite an expert, while Shikha was too impatient and hers remained a gooey mass) etc etc. After a few days, the tasks were no longer ‘fun’ and just heavy chores undertaken with much rumbles and protests, “Why do we have to do this? Why do the boys never do this? Why can’t we go also out and play on the swings? It’s so boring here with nothing to do, why can’t we go back home?”
There were no satisfactory answers to any of these questions nor permanent solutions – usually some stopgap distracting tactics were applied – bhoot, bad men lurking in all dark corners, a fairy tale or two which were sufficient to subdue if not convince the girls.
Afternoons were hot and quite unbearable. Biji would retire to her room with the girls for some shuteye. All sorts of dire straits awaited them if they dared go out of the room without any adult’s explicit permission. The boys too were herded into one room and rightly having no faith in the efficacy of mere threats, their room door was bolted from outside to ensure that they remain indoors. It was expected that sooner or later, dulled by the heavy meal and the blazing heat, the children too would doze off, sooner or later.
Once Biji dozed off, Kirti also decided to put her feet up and take a breather. Since the girls weren’t in the least bit sleepy and pestered Kirti, she allowed them to do their holiday homework provided they did so in complete silence. The girls happily took out their drawing things and spread out the chart paper on the floor. Kirti slid down on the easy chair and put a finger to her lips and frowned warningly at the girls. They nodded obediently and set about drawing village scenes as part of the ‘my summer holiday’ assignment. Tongue sticking out and fingers smeared with crayon colors the girls diligently (and for once silently) pored over their chart papers.
Rajani sat up in alarm. “What’s that?”
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