Lukhi arrived in time to witness Rajani’s woeful state and guess the cause as well. He cast a reproachful look at Biji. “Biji, she is a guest in our house.” His soft reprimand pricked her conscience. Perhaps she had been unjustifiably harsh. And what if Rajani had to be sent back home? Poor Lallu’s honor would be dust. He would never be able to hold up his head in his posh colony. Everyone would point fingers at him and say his mother couldn’t keep another’s daughter for a month – God knows how her bahus stay with her. Biji shuddered and then stiffened. Lallu’s honor would never suffer because of her and to that end she exerted herself to undertake some damage control. Of course in her own inimitable style.
“Enough of crying,” she said sternly to Rajani who was clinging to Kirti, “what’s the matter? Did the sky fall on your head? Have you never been scolded or what? Are you some Princess from a foreign land or planet? Stop all this drama at once.” Biji’s voice cracked like a whip.
Rajani froze, her sobs eased but she clung fiercely to Kirti, shaking and shivering. “Biji please,” Kirti whispered urgently, “please she is just a little baby. Just think how embarrassing it will be for your son to have to take Rajani back because she is unhappy here.”
Biji glared at Kirti. She of course knew that – but did that mean she was going to apologize to the chit of a girl? How could she? She was Biji after all. Besides, why should she? She was the eldest and had the right to say whatever she wished to whomever she wished. She faltered. But what about Lallu’s pride and honor?
“Treat her like a baby and she will remain a baby all her life,” she retorted. “Now you listen to me girl.” She made her sit up forcibly and face her. “Kirti will call up Lallu and you can go home whenever he is free to come.” With that she walked away.
Horrified, Shikha and Kirti stared after Biji. But she was clearly wasn’t done yet. She stopped at the doorway calling loudly, “Pappu, Pappu! Where did you go and die? Can’t you hear your poor old mother shouting herself hoarse?”
“Yes Biji?” he came up at a run.
“Listen, you know about the circus that has come to the next village?”
“Hmm. The boys wanted to see it. Take them tomorrow, no, day after tomorrow, to see the circus. I believe they have elephants, tigers, horses and even a hippopotamus.” She sighed pleasurably. “Maybe even I will go.” She turned back and said invitingly, “Shikha you would like to go to the circus wouldn’t you?”
A bit dazed at this rather unexpected development, Shikha could only nod dumbly.
“Good,” Biji said briskly, “that’s fixed then, day after tomorrow. Bahu, would you also like to go? Hmm decide amongst yourselves how many of you want to go, so that Pappu can arrange a suitable vehicle and tickets for all of us.” She walked out of the room. She stopped in the corridor as if struck. She clicked her fingers and rubbed her hands in glee. “I have a better idea! Why don’t we turn the circus trip into a picnic? Leave early, and on the way we can stop by the stream. The children splash about in the water, we can have lunch there and then go on to see the afternoon show? It will be a good change for all of us.”
With a triumphant shout of delight, the boys burst out from their various hiding corners to engulf Biji.
Biji drew her brows together and batted them off. “Uff all of you want to strangle me or what? Go away. Leave me alone. Go away.” She shouted menacingly. But the boys knew when she was fibbing. Besides, she couldn’t quite hide the gleam of delight in her eyes.
“Biji you are the best! Three cheers for Biji – Hip hip hurrah!” The boys did a sort of war dance around Biji whilst the bahus hid their smiles behind their dupattas – it would be a welcome break from their daily grind.
“Okay okay, enough now let me through,” she extricated herself from the surging jostling crowd of boys eager to hug her and sank down on her throne. She pulled thoughtfully at the hookah ruminating. Through the corner of her eyes, she noted that both the girls (and Kirti) were now standing by the doorway.
“Pappu, has any date been fixed for the village fair?”
“The village fair? Why yes Biji. I believe it is to be held a week from now.”
“Hmm I see. So what’s new this year?”
“Well, there was talk of a bigger giant wheel, horse rides, and even camel rides. Oh and maybe a puppet show as well. Some troupe from Rajasthan is being roped in.”
“Hmm.” Biji nodded her head, “I am glad. The boys will like the rides and Shikha will like the puppet show. Right dear?”
Shikha nodded her head shooting agonized looks towards Rajani who couldn’t quite hide her dismay. Still smarting and determined not to be tempted, Rajani turned away. But she couldn’t quite help overhearing Biji who was still talking to Shikha. “Yes you too must have some fun while here. After all we don’t want you to think that your grandmother’s place is any less enjoyable than Chandigarh!” She laughed pleasantly. She paused to pull at her hookah. She rubbed it in. “Bahu dear ring and tell Lallu to come and pick up Rajani tomorrow ok?” Kirti nodded her head, looking warningly at Shikha who was tugging urgently at her. Biji smiled to herself and yielded. Unless,” she coughed, “Shikha is able to convince her friend to stay on. Today’s children are very mature and wise to the ways of the world. They know what they want and who dare give advice to them?” Without a pause, she continued, “Boys,” she said sternly, “be careful about playing rowdy games with your sisters. They are not so rough and tough like you. You should be gentle with them okay?”
“But Biji,” Chotu protested, “we didn’t do anything.”
“Yes I know dear, you were just being good hosts. You wanted to show them how to play marbles, that’s okay but then what if you decide to teach them gilli-danda? Suppose one of them gets hurt and get a scar like Golu has over his eye? And then kabaddi?” she shuddered. “No, no I cannot risk their safety. Besides, it is a matter of their whole life – one scar and pfft there goes their future,” she shook her finger at the boys, “so be carefule what you play and how you play with girls, understand? Now go out and play,” she dismissed them from the house. “Bahu where’s my tea? Oh dear, I have such a headache, nobody has the least bit of consideration for an old lady…” muttering and mumbling Biji leaned back on her chair and closed her eyes.
Rajani had of course stopped crying a little while ago. One can’t really cry and eavesdrop very well can one? Curiosity won over hurt sentiments. But now the question was would temptation win over bruised ego as well?
Kirti looked down at Rajani. “So should I call up your Lalit uncle to come and pick you up?”
Shikha started. “Rajji!” she said urgently, “don’t go home. Please. What will I do alone here? Think of the circus, the fair, don’t you want to see it? It won’t be any fun without you.”
Rajani was silent – to go or to stay? She desperately wanted to stay, but could she? What about her self-respect? If only Mamma was here, then no one could scold her or make fun of her – neither Biji nor the boys.
“I want Mamma.” Her eyes filled with tears.
Shikha shook her. “Don’t go Rajji. Please?”
Rajani wavered. But only for a moment or two. Biji’s thunderous face, her utter complete public humiliation came back to haunt her, taunt her. “Mamma, I want Mamma,” she began sobbing again.
Kirti sighed and called up Nisha. “Hello? Oh. Namaste Bhaisahab,” she said hesitantly.
“Namaste Bhabhiji.” Suryakant responded. “Everything okay? Rajani behaving well I hope?”
“Yes, yes. Everything is fine. Umm is Nisha there? I wished to speak to her.”
“What is it? You can tell me. Is something wrong? Is that Rani crying…”
“No Bhai sahib, nothing…”
“Papaaa,” Rajani snatched the phone and bawled, “Papa, I want to come home. I want to be with you and Mamma.”
“Why what’s the matter Rani?” Suryakant was taken aback. “Are you not well?” He was concerned. Rajani was crying so much that he couldn’t understand anything. On top of it Nisha was hovering over him and kept motioning him to give her the phone and muttering what happened? Rani okay? He batted her away impatiently. “Rani beta, give the phone to Aunty. Come on now be a good girl I cannot understand anything. You are crying so much. Rani!”
“Yes Bhai sahib. It’s me Kirti.”
“What happened Bhabhiji? Her health…”
“No, nothing to worry Bhai sahib,” Kirti rushed to assure. “She is fine. Just that Rajani is a bit upset. She got a scolding from Biji…
“Scolding from Biji?”
“Ye…yes Bhai sahib. But nothing to worry really – the girls were playing marbles with the boys and Biji got angry and scolded the girls. Both of them,” she added hurriedly, “not just Rajani for being so dusty and dirty…”
“Oho this Rani is too sensitive!” Suryakant rued, “So what if Biji scolded a little bit? As the grandmother, it is not only her right but also her duty to guide the children to proper behavior and norms. Otherwise how will they learn anything? Please give the phone to Rani, I will explain to her.”
“Rani, now listen to me carefully,” Suryakant spoke sternly pushing away an insistent Nisha, “stop crying! What is there to cry about? So what if Biji scolded you?”
Rajani flared up. “Papa, Biji said she would hit me if she…”
“She only said that she would right? She didn’t hit you did she? Just be an obedient girl and nothing will happen to you – Kirti Aunty is there isn’t she?”
“But Biji was very angry, she scolded Kirti Aunty for bringing me here, that I was creating trouble…” the tears began to flow again.
“Oh don’t cry my dearest Rani,” Nisha succeeded in wresting away the phone from her husband.
“Hello Mamma,” Rajani choked on her sobs. “I want to come home Mamma.”
“But why?” Nisha too was in tears.
“Everyone is so mean to me over here.” She spilled her guts.
“Mean to you?” Nisha was taken aback. “Who? Shikha? Kirti Aunty?”
“No,” she sniffed valiantly, “the boys and Bi…jiiiii.” She couldn’t speak for her tears.
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