A poignant and sensitive portrayal of two women, Badi ma and Choti ma, the two sisters-in-law, whose lives are strangely braided. Their glaring differences notwithstanding, they are totally dependent on each other. What happens when Badi ma is about to breathe her last and she wishes to taste lentil – something that she is not supposed to have? What would Choti ma do? Find out more in this short story written by Mamta, exclusively for Different Truths?
They made a starkly different pair, the two women, from different homes, tied to one household by destiny.
The younger of the two women was fair-complexioned, the milk and peach skin texture heightened for she was fond of wearing bright coloured sarees. A red vermilion bindi glowed on her unlined forehead and a diamond nose ring defined her aquiline nose evermore. Music accompanied her when she walked for the silver bells of her anklets and the red bangles on her comely wrists announced her presence.
The elder woman, with a shaven head, was a silent, shadowy figure in an off-white saree without a border. Wearing a shapeless full sleeved blouse and wooden clogs, one could see her mumbling prayers while clicking her rosary beads, her sombre face lined with resignation.
Badi ma and Choti ma were sisters-in- law, married to two brothers. Badi ma was a child widow and was given shelter by her stoic but caring brother-in- law. He was born around the time she had crossed the threshold of her new home after marriage. She became a widow soon after but nobody banished the tiny orphaned girl from the house where she remained till the end of her ripe age.
The sisters-in- law were poles apart but made a great team. Choti ma was artistic in nature, delicate and soft spoken. Badi ma was tall, hefty and could get easily ballistic if someone offended Choti ma for she was very protective about her diffident sister-in- law.
Choti ma was blissfully happy with her husband. Her whole life revolved around him while she left Badi ma to rule the entire household. Choti ma gave birth to five sons and three daughters. Forever busy with frequent childbirths, Choti ma added gurgles, burps and babies smelling of milk in Badi ma’s barren life. Badi ma enriched Choti ma’s life by making her free from all responsibilities.
A child was still alive in Badi ma who had lived through so much. Her day began with waking up sleepy children, urging them to clean up, have wholesome breakfast and leave for school neat and tidy. The temper tantrums the children threw up, their mischievous tales, their mysterious fever and genuine sickness all were dealt by her with great elan. A gifted narrator, her exciting stories were eagerly awaited in the night and there was a major fight as to who would snuggle with her as the nights grew colder. The children grew up sandwiched between two mothers; wearing fine garments stitched lovingly by Choti ma while Badi ma lavished patience, attention and invaluable advice which often times they ignored.
The food in the kitchen was cooked by a male cook. Badi ma served food to children but never dined with them. The pleasures of food were not for the widows. Observing the complex rules of purity and pollution, Badi ma had to give up large number of common foods permanently. She would have only one meal a day, as was permissible to her. A vegetarian, onion and garlic were a taboo for her apart from lentils, tomatoes, brinjals, etc. Sitting in a solitary corner, away from everyone, she would eat some fruit, peanuts or a glass of milk.
Time wore on. The little girls and boys became adults. The girls were married and left their maternal home. The tall and strapping young men migrated to better pastures in search of employment. Their nest empty, the two women kept each other company, filling their vacuous hours reading or writing letters, knitting sweaters for the grandchildren which they did not see.
On a frigid evening, Badi ma fell sick. She had hidden her stomach pain for a long time leading to her lack of appetite. She began losing weight rapidly. Choti ma was at a loss. She had never managed the rambling household without her sister-in- law. “Didi, you had better get well. How will I manage without your help?” A sad smile lit Badi ma’s rheumy eyes, shaking her head as if amused at the obduracy of a child. “You will have to manage when I am gone.” Shivering and shaking, her fever rose that night. Badi ma was restless and delirious.
Cold compress and all-night vigil by Choti ma brought some relief to Badi ma. She opened her eyes and was coherent and clear. Choti ma tried to coax Badi ma to have some sweetened milk, which she refused.
“Choti, will you do me a favour? Before I die, will you let me taste lentils? I would like to know how it tastes.”
Shocked and bewildered Choti ma didn’t know how to react.
Having observed strict dietary rules all her life, what a wish Badi ma had asked her to fulfil in her dying moments. Should she commit blasphemy by allowing Badi ma to savour the sensuous richness of dal and let a pious soul go to hell? What about her own afterlife? If she feeds Badi ma lentils, she will invoke the wrath of Gods.
Badi ma died without tasting lentils.
Choti ma died too, while living.
A tiny death every day, making it harder for her to live, yet go on with life; unable to whitewash the memory of a last dying wish from a deprived soul.