World Literature

The Child of Prayers – A Short Story

The story of a woman, who walked every morning to the tikano, a place of worship, and used to spend more time in the alcove in the house that she had converted into a temple to have blessed with a son

Mother added more events to her existing religious routine. She began to perform the monthly Chand Arti and Pallav (Prayers to Jhulelal followed by the seeking of benediction).

By Murli Melwani

“I told you, Duru Dadi,” said Jamna Bai, the midwife, as she coaxed my mother to push, “that you will give birth to a son”

Banter and cups of tea had circulated round the room the whole evening. Around 9.00 pm an infant’s sharp cry surfaced on the waves of overlapping conversations.

“It’s a boy,” said Jamna Bai. The women launched into a rousing ladha (a celebratory song). Jamna Bai wiped the infant and handed him to my 8-year-old sister, Rupa, who stood behind Mother’s bed. Sati, the 6-year-old, came close to Rupa and put her finger in the infant’s hand. The boy closed his fist over it.

A sweeping, meaningful glance from Jamna Bai hushed the room. Jamna Bai signaled the older women to join her outside.

“The boy has no anal opening,” Jamna Bai said. The women knew what that meant. No bowel movement, a distended stomach for 5 or 6 days – And departure in a shroud.

My mother didn’t have to write to my father who was on his second contract managing a clothing store in Shillong. The husbands of most of the women who had gathered in the room were either overseas or working in different parts of India. Families did not accompany their husbands unless their employers, also Sindhis, were satisfied that the employee had proved himself to be loyal, hardworking and honest. That test ended after the 4th or 5th two-year contract. The sisterhood of wives who were left behind to raise children on their own had a grapevine that kept the husbands informed of the news at home.

When Duru came as the bride of Vishindas Samtani, some four or five years ago, it took her little time to make friends in the neighborhood. The women came to know Duru as a person with a large heart and a great sense of humour. She told a story with the flourish, the pauses and the banter of a wandering minstrel.

The daily recreation of the women was to gather on the rooftops after they had completed the day’s chores. The houses were so close to each other in this locality of Hyderabad, Sindh, that the neighbours shot the breeze across rooftops. The literal breeze was warm but pleasing with the dry fragrance of the desert.

One of the women would goad Mother with a remark like, “So Duru, did Hamid Mia deliver the suthan-cholo (loose pant and top) on time?”

“That Niria-ghutal!” – The literal meaning of the hyphenated word was “choked-throat.” Niria-ghutal was the nickname my mother had conferred on the tailor. Hamid spoke as if a glass-marble was stuck mid-throat.

My mother took the most noticeable trait of a person and gave it a good-humoured label. The dhobi had loose skin hanging under his chin, rather like the wattle of a rooster. She would say “the murgo has come. He will crow that he couldn’t finish ironing all the clothes so he’ll bring the rest next week.”

The elderly person who lived next door always left the home with his lips glistening with ghee, applied, presumably, to prevent his lips from chapping. My mother referred to him as the “the lip-ish-teeck Dada”.

My mother withdrew into herself after my brother left his body. She walked every morning to the tikano (a place of worship with Hindu, Sikh, Jhulelal iconography). On her return, Mother began to spend more time in the alcove in the house that she had converted into a temple. The neighbours learned from Rupa and Sati that Mother kept wiping and cleaning, over and over, the lithographs of Jhulelal, Guru Nanak, Lord Ganesh, and Goddess Lakshmi. She kept bathing and drying the statutes of gods and goddess with a faraway look in her eyes.

The women would come in the evening and coax her to join them on the roof top. Her gentle answer was the same every day: “I don’t feel like it today- Some other day.” But that day never came, not even by the time Father came home for the customary month’s break after his 3rd contract.

As Father told me years later, he was shocked at the change in Mother. “So…so…disheartened. No interest in anything.”

“I was shocked to lose a son too. But my interaction with customers and managing staff helped me accept my karma.”

Father had a sense of humour too. It was different from Mother’s. Whereas Mother saw people through a caricaturist’s eyes, Father used humour as a skill that resolved situations.  Father tried his best to raise Mother’s spirits. One morning he told her: “this middle-aged customer was undecided about the fabric he liked. So I said to him, ‘it will keep you warm in winter and cool in summer’. No fabric does that. The man laughed and bought the piece.” Mother’s response was a weak smile

On another occasion he told her, “The woman said that the price for the sari was too high, I told her this story: ‘One day a mother sent her young son to buy two annas worth of cooking oil. On his return she saw that there was an anna at the bottom of the mug. She told her son, ‘I’m sure the shopkeeper must be keeping a huge profit margin, otherwise how could he sell two annas worth and still return an anna.’” My father waited for a response, but Mother kept stirring the sai bhaji (a Sindhi delicacy) on the stove. “The customer smiled and said, “You can pack the sari.’”

One evening over dinner, Father narrated how “Hiro and Lachu – two employees – had a terrible argument. They came to me to arbitrate. I mimic-ed the gestures and expressions they used when they were arguing”. Father repeated the mimicry. Rupa and Sati laughed. Mother merely nodded.

I’m sure that my Father and Mother, in happier times, would have enjoyed their shared, though variegated, trait.

When humour didn’t work, Father encouraged Mother to join him on his evening strolls along Gidu Bandar, the promenade along the river. She accompanied him on one or two occasions; after that she excused herself.

Father’s month-long stay flew by. Mother hoped that, as on his previous visits, she would find herself pregnant. A whole month passed; her hope remained unfulfilled.

She shared her fear with her neighbours that she might never be able to conceive again.  The sisterhood began to assure her, in their own individual ways that in time the body would discover its functions. Mother kept hoping that it would.

My father completed another contracted stint and returned to Sindh for his month with the family. When Mother felt that Father was well rested, she said: “May I ask you something?”

“Of course! Ask all you want.”

“I want you to take me to Thatta (a city in Sindhh). I’ll take blessings from the dhuni of Baba Sunmukhdas”. The dhuni, the site of the worship to the Mother Goddess, is kept alight all the time.

Thatta was far from Hyderabad. My father had two options. His sister, Gopa-Ma’s husband, Seth Chandiram, was in the export trade in Karachi. Parents, Gopa-Ma and Father, being the only children of their parents were very close to each other. In fact, his brother-in-law had used his connections to get Father his present managerial position. Father could ask to borrow Seth Chandiram’s car, a spacious 1936 model Plymouth. But that would be inconveniencing his brother-in-law. Father chose to travel by the rickety public buses that made innumerable halts.

The sisterhood could see the change in Duru when she returned. She reported, with joy spilling from her eyes, that Baba had given her the vibhuti from the dhuni with the words: “Have faith. Your wish will be fulfilled.”

The rest of Father’s stay was as happy as the first weeks after his marriage.

Mother’s routine changed after Father left. She stayed longer at the tikano. On her return she went straight into the alcove and recited the Japji Sahib (Sikh Morning Prayer). She followed it by singing bhajans. She asked Rupa and Sati to join her for the ardas at the end. She spent half a day in the alcove.

Mother added more events to her existing religious routine. She began to perform the monthly Chand Arti and Pallav (Prayers to Jhulelal followed by the seeking of benediction).

She was overjoyed when she missed her period. But she didn’t tell anyone about it, fearing an evil eye. It was only when she missed it the 2nd time, she whispered it to the sisterhood. Soon she began to join the neighbours on the rooftops in the evening.

Hamid Mia’s wife, Bano, came on a Friday afternoon and presented her a metal taweez. “There is a prayer on paper rolled in. It will protect the child against harm.” Bano tied the black-threaded taweez around Mother’s arm.

The wife of the elder neighbour lip-ish-teeck Dada advised her to announce that she was carrying a girl. “This will mislead any evil spirit.” The elderly women took on the role of a town crier and spread the news.

Other neighbours chipped in with suggestions. One told her to order a girl’s frock and hang it in the house. Another brought her a basket of chillies and said she must distribute them, instead of the customary ladoos, when the child is born. The sisterhood insisted that she start performing the Satya Narian Katha every month. My mother honoured all their suggestions.

The delivery was easy, a son, with no birth defects. I am that child.

Chillies were distributed on the 11th day of my birth following my name-giving ceremony. According to the horoscope, my name should begin with the sound of K. The name chosen was Kheeman. But the elderly neighbor decreed that my name should to be related to chillies. She thought the name “Mirchu” would be appropriate. That was the name by which I began to be called.

When I was about 7 months old, Mother woke up around midnight to the feeling of an unseen, incomprehensible presence. She walked round the house and went back to sleep. Next evening, she shared her experience with the sisterhood. The chance of a thief entering the house was discounted because we lived on the 2nd floor. An older neighbour said that unexplained noises, scents, sensations, or fleeting shadows were indications that jivas, spirits, was present in a home. There were good jivas and bad jivas. Someone suggested an exorcising ceremony. My mother gently said her faith was in prayers.

A few weeks later Mother was roused from sleep with the same uneasiness as before. That night she didn’t dare to get up and check the house. She spent a sleepless night. Every few weeks this feeling of uneasiness would occur, mainly after midnight.

When I was about a year old Mother suddenly felt that I was not in the bed with to her. She closed her eyes, folded her hands and said in a tearful voice, “For the love of God, please don’t take another son from me.” After the supplication, Mother saw that I was by her side.

She wrote to Father about the happenings. “I’m living in fear. I don’t want to live here.” She waited, with increasing anxiety, for his reply. He wrote back that when he returned in about a year, he would find another home for her. Mother cried when she received the letter. After that she tried to stay awake at night by silently reciting shabads, mantras, and bhajans. Finally, she picked up courage and wrote to Gopa-Ma about the state she was in. Mother pleaded that she arrange for Father to come mid-contract and not just move her from this house but  take the family with him to Shillong. It was in Seth-Dada’s power to do so.

Gopa-Ma was able to convince her husband. Mother, in gratitude, wrote back that for this kindness she had sponsored an ardas for her in the neighboring tikano.

In no time the news spread that Duru and her children would move to Shillong. The sisterhood was happy for her.

When Father arrived, she pleaded: “before we leave, please take me to Tatta again.” This time the three of us accompanied our parents.

Baba Sunmukhdas smiled, and asked “What name have you given the boy?”

“The pandit chose Kheeman. But everyone calls him Mirchu.”

Baba asked for the day, the date and the time when I was born. He looked at a chart, thought for a few minutes and said in his gentle voice, “Change his name. The vibrations of the name, Arjan, will ease his journey through life.”

Mother touched the Baba’s feet. Arjan is the name I’ve carried since.

The first thing Mother did on arrival in Shillong was set up her home temple in a corner of the last of the three rooms.

Mother was taken by the natural beauty of Shillong. But what she couldn’t stand was the cold. She wore thick sweaters most of the time.

She followed almost the same routine here as she did in Hyderabad. Shillong didn’t have a tikano; it had a gurudwara. On Sunday mornings the whole family went to the Gurudwara, soaked in the kirtans and ate the blessed karaun parsad.

Afternoons, Mother and the three children sat on the verandah and heard her talk about Sindh, about her family, about the good and bad times she had lived through. She interspersed her memories with stories about Hindu gods and goddesses.

Her old sense of humour had returned; she saw the Hindu gods and goddesses in human terms. Once, talking about Hanuman carrying a whole mountaintop when he had to pluck just a herb, she gave this example: “If I told Arjan here to buy a few oranges and he brought me a whole tree, what would I think of him?” They laughed, nudging me.

Mother didn’t forget to teach me the value of work “In the evening, go stand behind the counters in the store. You’ll see how hard it’s to earn money.”

One evening the purchases of an Englishman filled a number of paper bags. The Englishman grabbed three bags in each hand. My father told me to carry the remaining two for him.  After the Englishman loaded the bags in his car, he pulled out a two rupee note and put it in my hand. I must have been about six years old. I ran home, excited; I told Mother what had happened and held out the note for her to take.

“Wait Arjan, wait,” She ran to get her roaw (dupatta), draped it over her head, held out the lower part with both hands, palav-paiyun style, as when seeking benediction. I put the two rupees in the raow. She touched it to her forehead. “Guru Baba. This is my son’s first earning. He is offering it to me. Bless him. May he earn so much that he can look after his mother and father when they are old.”

How can I ever forget that scene of Mother so ecstatically happy?

More than once Mother said, “all my treasures are with me for the first time.” That was the happiest period of our five lives.

As every winter approached Mother fell ill. Father would tell her “Let’s see a doctor.” Her reply always was: “A little rest, hot ginger-lemon-honey tea and I’ll be all right.”

But that winter her cough was more wracking, she had a fever, she didn’t eat much, she complained of being tired all the time. After much persuasion, she agreed to be seen by a doctor. Dr. Padmapati made a home call. He examined her and told us to rush her to the hospital. Father admitted Mother to the Welsh Mission Hospital. After the examination, Dr. Hughes spoke to Father in a whisper. “Fluid has collected between the covering of the lungs and the inner lining of the chest. The infection has spread to the blood stream. We’ll drain the fluid tomorrow morning.”

Mother’s smile was weak as she was being taken to the operating theatre the following morning.

Dr. Hughes came out of the theater a minute or two later. With a sad expression he told Father that by the time they transferred her from the gurney to the operating table “she was already in God’s arms.”

Gopa-Ma arrived after a few days. My father needed the emotional support only she could provide.

Over the next few days as the Sahaj Paath (non-continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib) continued, all that we talked about was Mother. It was in these conversations that I learnt the depth of her penances and the fervour of her supplications for a son.

“Bless him. May he earn so much so that he can look after his mother and father when they are old.”

For me the sun didn’t rise for months.

It rose after I promised myself to nurture this child of prayers in Mother’s image.

Seva would be the first step.  On pre-festival days I went to temples and gurudwaras and spoke to the panditjis and gyanijis. I noticed the pleased, supportive smiles on their faces as they assigned tasks to this ten-year-old.

__________________________

Courtesy: Muse India – The literary ejournal (May-Jun 2021 Issue)

Murli Melwani

Murli Melwani taught English Literature at Sankardev College, Shillong, before making a mid-career change to head an export company in Taiwan for 25 years. His retirement in Plano, Texas, brought out the writer in him. His short stories have been published in journals in various countries, including USA, UK, Hong Kong and India. He is a two-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, in 2012 and 2013. One of his stories made the list of “Story South Million Writers Award notable stories of 2012”. Another was nominated for “Best of the Net 2013” prize run by Sundress Publications, USA. Another was included in Stories from Asia: Major Writers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (Longman Imprint Books, UK). His published work includes Stories of a Salesman (1967), short stories, Deep Roots (1970), a play in three acts, and two books of criticism, Themes in Indo-Anglian Literature (1976) and The Indian Short Story in English (1835-2008): An Historical and a Critical Survey (2009). His latest collection of short stories is Ladders against the Sky (2018). He lives in Foster City, CA.
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