‘I was just a kid then and more than a dozen of us, cousin brothers and sisters, had a memorable time in the modest railway quarter in the picturesque little town in south Bihar,’ Mitrasaheb began his story.
All four of us were sitting around Mitrasaheb in his exotic bungalow at Banihal in Kashmir huddled around a bukhari. It was biting cold outside; the large windowpane revealed a moonlit night with a clear view of a series of snow-capped hillocks, and the silhouettes of army bunkers on their tops.
It was hard to visualise Mitrasaheb as a kid with his aquiline nose crowning a thick white handlebar moustache and a bald pate. But his clear eyes were still young and enchanting, dripping with affection and gleaming with that friendly twinkle. And what a great storyteller he was!
Delhi, from where we had started our journey a week ago by car would be celebrating Holi the day after. No Holi in Kashmir, but the moon, nevertheless, was radiant.
We were in a dream the last seven days. Dilip, carrying a backpack of magnum cameras and accessories had not once complained of backache. We had jumped and rolled over in three feet of snow en route to Sonmarg and had an unforgettable lunch that consisted of a very rich rogan josh and roti in the off-season deserted town of Pahelgaon. Kallol was in his usual euphoric best after sighting half a dozen pied kingfisher in the Dal lake. Sekhar, unmistakably happy, with his dear and near ones far away, was pecking me at every opportunity and I missed no chance of hitting back.
‘We had a regular washerman who was supposed to visit our house at least once a week,’ resumed Mitrasaheb. ‘but he was a busy man, this washerman and so his wife, a frail little woman, wearing a charming smile and a pair of heavy silver bangles accompanied him. Her duty was to tie up our used clothes in a bundle, while my mother would jot down the list in her personal notebook. Next week we had the same routine with mother ticking off the items brought back stacked in a neat heap, cleaned and pressed.
‘Business over, she was in no hurry to depart. She would squat on the floor, resting her arms on the bundle and would go on chatting with mother, who in turn sat on a bamboo stool preparing pan—a chewing delicacy intricately designed on a betel leaf that turned the lips red. She shared it with our washerman’s wife.
‘Preparing and sharing a pan is a ritual of amicable social discourse by Bengali ladies; it is almost a lost tradition now, like sharing a hookah,’ interjected Sekhar.
‘We all know that, Sekhar; please don’t interrupt,’ I exclaimed. Knowing Mitrasaheb well, he was yarning a tale of which as yet I had no clue.
‘Ah yes,’ continued Mirasaheb, ‘let me come to the theme of my narration. One day one of us kids reminded the others that before parting she would invariably say, ‘Ma, you will give me a new sari in the next holi’.
‘It became a betting game for us. Every time she came, I think it was during the summer holidays—it was so hot in Chakradharpur that we were confined indoors and would move around from this room to that like busy bees—we would raise our ears, waiting for her departing words and debating whether she would remind mother of her loving demand of a new sari in the coming holi. She always did.
‘During the winter holidays, mother bought a new sari, well in advance; possibly because she was uncertain whether with our meagre budget she would be able to buy one on the eve of holi.
The piercing shriek of the pressure cooker forced a break in the story. Dilip got up to fiddle around the kitchen. He had volunteered to cook a rich Kashmiri delicacy of lamb and we had gracefully conceded unaware of the disaster awaiting us.
Sekhar refilled our glasses, while Kallol readjusted the bukbari.
Mitrasaheb, looking majestic in this firan, took a sip and resumed, ‘But she never came back—the washerman’s wife. And for that matter, nor did the washerman. Days passed and then weeks.
‘We children kept waiting. We were not much bothered about regular washing. Nor had we developed any attachment for the woman. But we knew that holi was hardly a few weeks away and the suspense was growing steadily.
‘And suddenly one day, as if to relieve our anxiety the washerman came back. With profuse apologies he handed over the pending clothes duly cleaned and pressed and in a solemn voice declared that he was delayed because his wife had died.
There was total silence in the room and our questioning looks remained unanswered. Nevertheless, looking at Mitrasaheb we knew that the story was far from finished. We took a break anyway.
Dilip playing the chef pottered to the kitchen. Kallol, the courageous one, donned a monkey cap and a pair of gloves to venture out and after a stroll came back shivering and a little frustrated only to declare that such a moonlit night was far from suitable for star grazing.
‘A few weeks later a new woman came with the washerman’, Mitrasaheb resumed. ‘My new wife, he solemnly declared. From now on she would come to take the clothes, would also return them’.
‘She started coming regularly and we waited with bated breath as holi approached. Would she also ask for a sari? I think mother waited anxiously, too, as we did.
‘A day before holi came the washerman’s new wife. As she moved away with the bundle of clothes our suspense grew. She trudged off without looking back and then mother called her.
‘Wait. This sari is yours, wear it tomorrow.’ ‘Mothers voice quivered as she said those words; the woman pranced forward to accept the precious gift.’