The city those days ended just a little beyond their compound. However, the compound had been quite old even then. The road was considered wide those days – now, of course, it has become difficult to walk through it. A lane, looking like the many other lanes in the city, branched out between two shops but didn't lead anywhere. Meandering here and there, it reached the same spot again. The space left out by the lane in its meanderings was taken up by toy-like houses built in rows of two. Roughly tiled or thatched roofs appeared like the spine of a sick mongrel ... floors were of beaten earth ... the walls however, were plastered with cement in places.
And the winding lane was like a rope, binding in its fold an entire world. Not just the houses but also those who lived in them. And it was an entire world – a 'shivala' - a Shiva temple, a water-well, a neem tree. A shop that sold everything – flour, pulses, rice, oil, candy, bottles of sweet and sour water (without ice) – everything of everyday need, that is. They were a family of two brothers but the shop was said to be owned by one of the two, perhaps the elder one, called Massur Maharaj, whose name may well have been Masmiadin. The entire compound had three poles in it put there by the municipality, over which burned lamps.
His house, which consisted of two rooms built one after the other, was close to the neem. Also close to the neem was one of the poles. A branch of the neem on that side dropped low. So low, that people, without climbing up or using a bamboo, plucked out neem twigs to be used as tooth brush just by pulling it down by hand. When the lamp was lit in the evening, he sat opening the window in the front room. The light, filtering down the neem leaves in the dark nights, spread out on the walls to form strange shapes. The slightest of breeze made these shapes dance, now making, now breaking them. But he never feared this sport of the dim lamp light. What he feared was the dark.
During summer, he generally slept before it was dark and even if he didn’t bappa usually returned home by then. And he feared nothing when with bappa. However, darkness descended early in winter. And then he was both cold and scared. Mai - his mother - cooked rotis. Lighting the earthen stove in the back room, she covered the baby, if asleep, with a patched covering or held him in her lap if he was awake. He didn’t really mind it but mai didn’t pay him any attention when the baby was there. He had after all grown quite big. He didn’t remember the number of siblings born after him. Perhaps one was born every year but no one survived except for him. What was really upsetting was that when a new baby was to be born, mai’s tummy bloated up and she was not able to cope with the work and cooked the meals with great difficulty. Often she had fights with bappa at night. However, he did get leave from taking his baths. In winter, if mai was keeping all right, she led him to the well every second or third day and scrubbing with a locally made soap, gave him his bath. He also received a blow or two if he gave any trouble and often returned shivering with cold or whimpering from the blow.
And then when it was time for the child to be born, women from neighbourhood collected in the house and he was banished. At times mai could be heard groaning inside. He had heard neighbours say at times how very brave a woman Ghaseeta’s mai was, other women just didn’t stop screaming on such occasions.
Even he remembered Bisnath’s wife. Bisnath, much older to him, had a light moustache and beard. He had gone all dressed to his in-laws’ house for gauna - to bring his wife home after the prescribed post marriage interval - but the thick dark kohl on his dark face made him look more like a cat. His wife was very young, not over thirteen or fourteen. Dressed in red, she went about with a jingle of her jewellery. Soon, her belly too bloated up. Her outings stopped. She was seen only when she came out running and sat down to throw up. He found it disgusting and turning his face, moved away from there.
It was summer when one morning, Bisanth’s wife began to scream. The children in the lane gathered in a group and the women too arrived at Bisnath’s house. He realized when he saw the old chamaarin - the woman of leather workers' caste who acted as a midwife - that Bisnath’s wife was going to deliver her baby. The same old woman came to his house, each time mai was to have a baby. Once, Bisnath’s wife came out screaming but Bisnath’s mai caught hold of her and pulled her back in the house.
He was standing there, watching dumbly, when his mai appeared from behind him. He did not protest when his mai caught and took him home. Bappa had already left for work by then. Giving him his roti and securing the door on the outside, mai left. He had felt bad and forced the roti down with difficulty. Later he kept turning everything in the house this way and that for a long time. Then he came and put his ear against the door but could hear nothing. He could have opened the window and jumped out but, for some reason, didn’t feel like opening the window. In the end he took out his box filled with kernels and tamarind seeds, won by him in a game. Pouring them out over the floor he began to make piles of five – he could count only up to five.
When mai returned she had Massur Maharaj’s wife and sister-in-law in tow. (He could never tell which of the two was the wife, which the sister-in-law). The three were sighing deeply and saying ‘Oh God!’ He didn’t remember now what each said but certain portions of the conversation became fixed in his mind. ‘Only God can help a woman at such a time. Poor thing. Even God turned away from her.’ ‘God’s will. He gave her so much pain at such a tender age and also took her life.’
From this he knew Bisnath’s wife had died. After sometime mai went to take her bath. And he sat there with his kernels and seeds spread out before him. Why had Bisnath’s wife died, how had she died – he didn’t understand for a very long time. Mai gave birth every year. That those days were extremely difficult is another matter. She lay confined in the room for twelve days. He wasn’t allowed in the room. Joining bricks in the front room and lighting it with fire, bappa used to cook a meal of roti and daal.
And each time he heard from the visiting women neighbours, ‘this time too Ghaseeta’s mother didn’t get milk in her breasts..’ Mai called sometimes an exorcist, sometimes a Peer for a magic cure. She sent for goat milk at times and at times for milk of a special cow. Also baby tonics, but what happened each time was that the baby became enlarged, he whimpered for a few days and then one day, he died. Mai cried her heart out and bappa, wrapping the child in a cloth took one or two of the neighbours with him. On the day, he was fed by a neighbour and from the next day life returned to its old routine.
But even then, he did not sit inside with mai. The room filled with smoke when she lit the stove. In fact the entire lane became smoky in the evening when each house had a stove burning in it. Many of the people made grates out of tin canisters, lit them with coals and put them outside for the smoke to thin out. The smoke made the darkness in the lane darker still, out of which danced flames from the grates dotting the lane. This hour was specially scary to him.
He could hear mai cook inside in the light of a small tin lamp but that didn’t take away his fear. Watching mai work at the stove in the smoke filled room or even sitting inside did not take away his fear. The light from the small lamp was very dim and just watching the smoke from the stove rustle up and spread in the room was frightening to him. When mai blew hard and the firewood went up in flames, it startled him. It seemed to him that the sooty tiles had caught fire. Later, when the flames came down slowly to give way to smoke, he felt stifled. He got up then and went to sit at the window.
Sitting at the window too, he felt very frightened till the time bappa came home or the municipality lamp was lit. But in winters, bappa generally returned home after the lamp was lit. Often the municipal worker was seen coming with a basket on the head and a ladder on shoulder as soon as it was dark or, at times, a little later. He could recognize the worker from a distance because of the ladder and the lamp burning in the basket. If he came late or didn’t come at all (which was rare) he was totally overtaken by his fear. Despite the bundee – the lined vest - he wore and the patched covering called kathari that he pulled over himself, he sat there shivering with cold, benumbed with fear. He watched every man who entered the lane to see if it was his father, but when the man passed him by the fear in his heart increased further.
He recognized bappa only when he turned towards the house. And then he leaped up to undo the chain, his fear disappearing completely the moment he saw bappa. Bappa came in, took off his shoes, sat on the cot while he returned to sit at the window. In the dark he had barely a vague idea of where bappa was sitting but he could hear bappa breathe and felt no fear. When drowsy, he lay down on the sack under the window, or, at times cuddled up at the window to sleep. When roti was cooked, mai came to wake him up. At times he didn’t remember the next day whether he had eaten the previous night or not.
But usually the municipality-worker with the lamp arrived regularly and punctually. Resting his ladder against the pole, he put his basket down, climbed up, took the lamp off, filled it with oil from the box, cleaned the glass and the lamp with a duster and putting the lamp back on the pole, lit it. He was specially taken up by two of the worker's actions. One, when he rubbed the lamp clean, it shone in the light of the lamp burning in the basket. And then, when he took out the wick that had one end dipped in the box and brought it near the lamp in the basket it lit up at once. Lighting the lamp on the post, the worker dipped the wick in the box again and it puttered off. He liked both, the way the wick lit up and the way it puttered off. He always wondered why, when he put the burning wick back in the box, didn’t the oil in the box burn up. He thought it had something to do with the worker’s deftness and if he missed once the oil would surely go up in flames and if the box caught fire the whole basket would burn down. But it never happened.
In a while, the flame of the lamp found its measure and steadied down. The shadow of the lamp spread out in a strange shape under the post, lighting at the same time a large area of the lane. The light filtering down the neem leaves made a lattice on the ground that danced with the lightest of breeze. Sitting at the window he gazed at the flame of the lamp till his eyes began to smart and water but the fear in his heart was driven away. And when bappa returned he began to drowse, listening to his breathing.
During those days he thought he too would become a lamp lighter when he grew up. Going from lane to lane with a basket on his head and a ladder over his shoulder, he would rub each and every lamp clean and light it up. Otherwise too, he liked the lamp lighter. He had a moustache somewhat like bappa’s, didn’t speak to anyone on his daily rounds except for a greeting with ‘Ram Ram’. But the lamp lighting stopped before he could grow up. The lane was electrified.
As one entered the lane from the road, the first lamp post stood near the Shivala. It was the first to go when the electrification started. In its place came a tall pole filled with wires and a blazing bulb. Now the municipal worker had only two lamps to light. After some more days the other lamps too were replaced by electric bulbs, and the lamp lighter stopped coming. No one came to light the electric bulbs or to clean them. The bulbs lit up on their own when it was evening. At times it remained lit even during day time. It’s light also, was very bright. If the doors and windows were left open the front room got lit up despite the neem and everything in it became clearly visible. In fact, the back room did not get so well lit up with the small tin lamp.
The neem branch that dropped low came in the way and so, was felled. At first, people took away twigs. Soon they had a stock of tooth-brushes for months. The dry shoots were used as fire wood. The pandit, who performed religious rites at the Shivala, paid labourers and had the main branch, that lay severed, chopped and moved to his rooms. But it was no longer easy to pluck twigs. People had either to use a pole or climb up.
But now the bulb gave out so much light, he did not feel afraid the way he had used to. Usually the bulb lit up with the dusk. He had also grown up a bit. However, there were times when the electricity supply failed and the entire lane was plunged into darkness. But the supply was quickly restored. When the bulb fused, it stayed fused for days. At times the bulb didn’t work for weeks. And if it happened to be winter and the nights dark, he felt very scared. And then, he sat inside with mai till the time bappa returned, because now, there was no hope that the municipal worker would come and light the lamp. He didn’t feel so scared now, sitting inside with mai. Even now, in the pitch dark outside, he felt something was smothering him from all four sides, and that he could not escape. In bappa’s presence however, he was not afraid, no matter how dark it was. He was in mortal fear of bappa and never had the nerve to ask him questions. If bappa called him and sounded miffed he became speechless with fear. But when bappa was there he never feared anything and bappa was hardly ever miffed with him. He didn’t recollect ever having been beaten by bappa in his childhood. Mai used to give him a smack or two every now and then. Once bappa had beaten him blue and black, but that was much later when he had grown quite big.