Story of a young married poor woman, who, since childhood, had been bound in a cycle of labor, where she didn’t have time to think of good or bad; she had to live in the world, to work for meal.
By Heena Agnani ‘Heer’
Heena Agnani ‘Heer’ is a writer, poetess, columnist and artist based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat India. Born in 1972, and having done the B.Sc., MLT, and Masters in Sindhi, she is Sindhi News Reader, translator, announcer and drama artist at All India Radio. She has also vast experience of TV production. Heena has the honor of interviewing over one hundred Great Sindhi Personalities and producing some documentaries.
Heena is author of five books that include Shabnam Moti (Poetry – 2017), Kari Cheekh (Short stories – 2018), Tatal Taye Jo Sach (Translation- 2018), Asmani Pari (Children’s poetry- 2019) and ‘Bhagwan Nirdosh ja Choond Ghazal’ (Compilation of poetry – 2019).
She is recipient of Gujarati Sindhi Sahitya Academy Award for her poetry book ‘Shabnam Moti’ in 2017 and Best Book Award by National Council for Promotion of Sindhi Language (NCPSL) on ‘Kari Cheekh’ (Short Stories) in 2019. ‘The Hearth – Still cool’ is the title story of the book, translated into English from Sindhi language.
The Hearth – Still Cool
Anjali’s youth had become unruly and unfaithful.
But … as if she cared! She did not even have time to groom her hair. She was happy to have her youth as a gift from life, Was busy working with the wages she got from her life. As soon as she woke up in the morning, the day started with the task of filling water, away from the village. In the midst of the small huts inhabited, separately, there stood Anjali’s hut! She was married as a child. The task of feeding two girls and an always drunken, gambler husband seemed to be burdensome for her now. Going to a house to scrub pans and sweeping, filling the water away from the hand pump was now breaking her waist. Even after working from morning to evening, she could earn only khichdi!
She used to cook khichdi in a big pot on the stove which was kept outside at 6:00 pm every evening, for which her daughters and her husband waited since morning. After wandering all day, her alcoholic husband would appear at home at 6 o’clock sharp and would start shouting while sitting on the cot from a distance. Anjali used to decide how much khichdi to serve to whom. Every day, only one of them could have a full stomach, but today it was different. Every house in which Anjali worked, she got an answer, don’t have change money, will pay you tomorrow. Seth Vijender Singh said,” that the key to the wardrobe is not available, come tomorrow.”
She was looking repeatedly at her daughters’ pale face and sunken stomach. She had already given them two cups of water to drink. After a while, her husband arrived there, too. She went outside the hut and stopped him there to ask, “How much have you earned today? Give today’s ration. Or you will not get the khichdi.” With the little consciousness he had, he shouted, “I do not want your khichdi, I will bring a biscuit from outside.” Anjali replied, “Who will give you the money if you are not in your senses? For how many days will this go on? Look at our daughters, take pity on their empty stomach and borrow from your employer. No one will lend me anything, because I didn’t get any work today. You will have to cook it”, he fell down mumbling. Holding him with his hand, she somehow managed to put him on the cot and soon he passed out. It was late in the evening and soon, bed time. With her two daughters, she laid down on a thin, torn mattress. She had no one to tell about her hunger or state of mind. She could not sleep that night. She kept thinking, “How long will this go on?” Suddenly she remembered about Seth Vijender Singh. He was such a good hearted and compassionate person. Even before this, times he had helped Anjali, but repeatedly asking Seth for help was embarrassing her now. Vijender Singh had asked her to divorce her alcoholic and gambler husband. Seth believed that such people could never build a home. He had said to her, “Come, stay with me. I am ready to take the responsibility of you and your daughters.” Anjali was shocked after hearing the proposal. She started thinking what people of the society would say! Such anecdote had never happened in the community till this day. She had forgotten Seth’s offer in the midst of worries such as being thrown out of the society. Today, however, she was pondering over these same thoughts again and again. Seth had a wife, but she was very ill and bedridden since the last two-three years. She could not even sit up, Seth would feed her. There was no one else in the house, no children or anyone else. Seth liked Anjali’s cooking. He used to lick his finger clean after eating and say, “You are like Annapurna.” Anjali pitied him; he had all the happiness of the world except a good wife. But what could she do? Her thoughts were broken by the sounds of her daughter’s fast breathing. She took her into her arms; her whole body was hot with fever. Quickly, she got up, filled the pot with water and started applying cold cloth strips on her head.
She fell asleep worrying about the next day’s plan; whether she would be able to go for work or not, what would happen if she left. Her eyes were opened by the sound of the crowd standing in front of the hand pump. Her daughter’s fever had now reduced. She left her older daughter in charge of the younger one and went to fill water. She decided that she would get money from Seth today, no matter what. Food hadn’t been cooked in her house since the previous night.
Seth’s eyes twinkled on seeing her. He said happily, “Good that you have come early today”. “What happened, Seth? Are you fine” she asked. “The utensils have not been cleaned today, and even yesterday’s are still dirty. Let me first clean the utensils.” Saying so, she went to the kitchen. Seth spoke from the room,” Anjali leave the vessel for the moment, I am very hungry, make some breakfast. The cook did not come yesterday. Your Sethani’s health was not well, the whole night has been spent in her service, and her fever was not going down at all, now I will die of hunger, hurry please”. “Sure, will quickly make Koki. Have it with curd”. Seth did not wait at the dining table, but sat inside waiting for breakfast in his room. Anjali quickly made two Kokis and came to his room to feed Seth. While returning back her salwar got stuck in the nail at the corner of the bed resulting in a big hole in the salwar (trouser). Seth could clearly watch her youthful legs from that hole. Seth quickly slammed his finger into that torn salwar and tore it more. Anjali fell down. She became nervous, her heart beat faster; she was very young and beautiful. She got mixed feelings. Since childhood, the world had bound her in such a cycle of labour where she didn’t have time to think of good policy or bad policy, religious doing or non – religious doings. She had only one thing to live for in the world, to earn meal and eat a meal.
On this day, she had become aware of her own womanhood and the feminine drunkenness of love.
But at the same time she remembered what her husband had said,” you will have to earn the meal.” For the first time in life, she felt good about a man’s touch, but in the next moment, the picture of a sick daughter, drunken husband, broken hut, poverty, labour and hard work stood in front of her. The intoxicated body immediately became inactive. Her heart cried out. Alas, first feeling of life burnt away in the hot of burning stove, she felt as if the bed is the earthen pot in which she is cooking herself as the khichdi. She could hear her husband shouting; his words still echoed in her ears, “Anjali, you are also like Khichadi.” She pushed Seth aside with her hands. Nobody sympathized with her crying. Her cries were choked by the light of day. She was lying on the bed crying inside. The evening was dead, the night was dark, the light sounded and then silenced.
It was a night like every day.
But Anjali was either there or not! When Anjali returned home, her husband sat waiting for the khichdi. Everyone stared at her, soon as she entered the kitchen. Anjali looked beautiful. Her soiled torn salwar was not on her body neither her soiled and torn dupatta was on her shoulders. Instead she was adorning beautifully embroidered silk kurta, silk salwar and a scarf with matching print. Her chic style, her attitude was like a Sethani. As soon as she entered inside, she let the box of sweets fall out of the two baskets she was holding in her hands. The mice immediately leaped at them. Her husband tried to drive away the same mice from her behind. It was only this moment when he wanted to ask her something, but could not ask anything. Silence and peace looked more terrible than the sound of the clock; Anjali slowly straightened the basket of sweets and sat down on the floor. Her husband said, “Distribute them in the plate for all.” Anjali replied without any movement, “Now what is needed to be distributed to everyone? Eat as much as you want to eat, tomorrow you will get more food than that”. She looked loathingly at her husband. Had he been sober, her husband would not have been able to bear the hatred in her eyes.
She raced out and threw herself on the cot.