When I sent five thousand rupees to Lal Devi in Amritsar, I knew that I would hear about it on my next trip from the US to India. I heard about my ‘generosity’ from an aunt in Delhi. The reason she knew about it was what I should have known from my childhood. Lal Devi loved to talk or, as most neighbors said, ‘blab'. She was the gossip in the neighborhood and could spread a piece of information faster than the dhindorchis (drum-bangers).
When I last saw her she was blind as a bat. "I miss your mother!" she talked about my dead mother as she sunned herself in the winter morning, on our verandah. She was over eighty years old. As usual, she had had many complaints about failing organs and ingrate grandchildren. She bemoaned the fact that she had outlived so many of her neighbors and friends among others.
"I will be dead the next time you visit Amritsar," she said.
"You will live to be hundred before you die".
She laughed her toothless laugh. "Listen to yourself, you were always so stubborn!" I thought now comes that story from my childhood about jalwa. I used to be constantly reminded by Sheila Tai, also known as Chand Rani, about my extended tantrum because she did not take me to see the promised jalwa - a festival of sorts which I did not know anything about! And Lal Devi was her witness and was supposed to accompany us! In their wisdom, grownups consider some events to be formative in a child's life. That was this aunt's view about me. When I was young, I did not know what they were talking about.
"And Chand Rani put red peppers in your mouth to stop your abuses!" Lal Devi remarked. I had heard about this storied incident! It was the Indian version of rinsing the mouth of an abusive child with green soap.
I remembered the time when Lal Devi's son Sat Pal had hit me in the head with a brick. She had slapped him, and bunched up her white dhoti to stop the bleeding from my head. My mother had not kept a permanent grudge against her.
I paused to reflect as to how someone like Lal Devi, who had so little, could keep a grip on life. She had taught me the Hindi alphabet and grammar for two summers when we were switching from Urdu to Hindi in junior grades. My mother was trying to help her earn a little extra money. This was in 1948, right after India gained independence in 1947. The poor teachers at our municipal school had spent their lives teaching in Urdu, but now the young chauvinistic state insisted that they teach in a new language, Hindi. In its generosity, the government gave them four years to make the switch.
So, those of us who were good in Hindi were teachers' favorite, as we could help the old men keep their jobs. At the time of the annual inspection by the school-inspector, teachers were busy getting class rooms cleaned. Our talents were required to print admonitory phrases in large black letters on white-washed walls. These included the inane, "Don't litter, don't spit on the side-walk." Imagine the anxiety of the teachers worrying about spelling and punctuation of a language and alphabet that they did not know!
As an eight-year-old, it gave me a powerful hold on the head master, who was closest to retirement and most in need of Hindi lessons. Despite the fact that my father had done the tall, stoop- shouldered teacher many favors, he was not averse to doling out punishment.
Lal Devi, who lived down the street, was a widow. She had been widowed at a young age, and had to support her family by working as a second grade teacher at an all-girls' school. The school was run by a religious institution, which paid little to their teachers and expected a lot. She had three sons and two daughters. At the end of the month when rationed food supplies ran out, my mother was good for a cup of sugar or a measure of flour. Since we had a milk-cow, in the morning some fresh buttermilk was always kept for Lal Devi.
Her oldest daughter was married and well settled. The unmarried younger daughter was docile, gentle and helpful at home. Lal Devi constantly worried about finding a groom for the girl, since she could not afford a dowry. Years later, when she finally married her daughter off, her son-in-law turned out be an irresponsible dolt who constantly whined, and demanded goods like a bicycle and radio.
But her three sons were another matter! Sat Pal, the youngest of her sons was in the same class as my older brother Ravi. His greatest asset was his athletic ability. Tall and gangly with thin, spindly legs, he could run like a gazelle. Though fair, his features had a yellowish tinge, his cheeks pinched, and he always appeared hungry. His long greasy hair was slicked down with mustard oil.
His height and speed came in handy when we stole raw mangoes or guava fruit from small gardens, nearby. For a lark, we would follow the slow moving bullock-carts carrying nuts and dry fruit from the railway godown, which was not far from our street. The trick was to find a tiny hole in the gunnysack, enlarge it with your fingers and let the fruit fall into the loose end of our shirt-tails. Of course, after that we had to turn and run very fast, so the cart-driver would not catch us.
Sat Pal with Chaman Lal's help (read about Chaman Lal in A Favour for a spoilt kid), once used a safety razor to pinch a large amount of raisins and pine nuts. In our group, Sat Pal was always a head taller, and marked as a leader. One year, we were collecting money for the annual festival of Lohri. As Sat Pal approached a slightly drunken gentleman in failing light dusk, the man gave us a rupee, which was a lot of money at that time. Next day the man again happened to pass by our neighborhood. Again, we approached him with our ditties, but now he was sober. He immediately turned on Sat Pal, grabbing him by the collar, "So you are the ring leader! You cheated me yesterday!" We had to beg and cajole him to let go of Sat Pal.
Sat Pal was not really very clever. He did not have the cunning of Inder or the tenaciousness of Kishan in our gang. So he would get caught easily. He was also very obliging to my mother, who often loaned him a bicycle to go to the store for a grocery item or buy some snacks, when the guests showed up. Even today I wonder why did he not turn around, and tell her to send her own boys on errands.
We admired his patience when ‘the cripple' in his house made insulting comments about him. Lal Devi had rented the front of her house to a large family of ‘refugees'. Right after partition of India, those who had to leave their homes and lands behind and settle in eastern part of Punjab earned the sobriquet of ‘refugee'. Both a taunt and later a badge of courage, as yet it was a description children did not like.
This family had a boy of about fourteen, who was horribly deformed since birth, with paralyzed legs and a hump on his back. His older brother or sister would sit him on a chair in the morning, and he would watch the goings on in the street. He would also loudly comment about everything. Demanding of his family and neighbors, he loved to play cards, at which he was very good. We all tried to avoid him but for Sat Pal it was impossible as ‘the cripple' seemed to keep a vigil on him.
Sat Pal played cricket. He bowled fast which the adults considered medium-pace. He had an intimidating run-up to the pitch. Just to see him wearing long white pants was a treat, as all my life I had seen him in pajamas. As an all-rounder he could bat and field with great élan and competence. In volleyball, he could spike and dig balls with the best of them.
We assured Lal Devi that Sat Pal would get an athletic scholarship at school to make up for his poor grades. She fretted about his lack of academic skills but hoped that he could at least matriculate. He did well with the middle school teams, winning the championship and we all went to congratulate Lal Devi at her son's achievement. But she was not the one to rejoice. As usual, she remarked that his grades were not good. In our childish enthusiasm, we related how Sat Pal had won a championship for the school.
She just shrugged, "When he passes the tenth, I will see."
Then in high school, it became apparent that Sat Pal would not even be able to represent the school as he could not pass from ninth to tenth grade. That hurt his pride and we all avoided talking to Lal Devi.
Years later, on one of my annual trips from the US to my hometown, Sat Pal came up to me. He looked much older than his age. He was still thin but now dark, and his skin sagged. He asked me if I would bring him an imported watch on my next trip. That was something his son-in-law wanted. He was using a bicycle in the open fields outside our houses as he had gotten down, when he spotted me. I did not even know that he had a married daughter. He affected the same baby-lisp that he used to when he spoke with my parents or other elders in childhood. It was rather strange of him to use it on me.
I did send him the watch, when I sent the money to Lal Devi. Growing up I used to have a notion that just as neighbors came to visit my father, someday my friends would be seated in the big room and share a smoke or joke with me. I had imagined Sat Pal and my other friends sitting in the ancient cane-chairs! I had even imagined them in long pants and not in knickers that they sported as kids!
Lal Devi's oldest son Punni was a simpleton. Tall and scrawny, with a stooped back, he had a high-pitched voice. It was well known that when he was sick, he screamed loud enough to wake up the neighborhood. He did not finish high school, dropped out and found a job. He worked in the cloth market as an agent for a rich merchant. He was barely beginning to make a living, improving Lal Devi's living standard somewhat, when he got killed in a fight. People said he was drunk and some badmashes beat him to death. It seemed so unlike Punni to be involved in a fight.
It was her middle son Chaman (a popular name as one of my father's friend and neighbor was also so named) known by his nick- name Dudd (frog) who had extensive dealings with my father. Though Lal Devi often asked my mother for help, she would say,"Why don't you ask him?" My father remained uninvolved. If she were visiting my mother when my father came home, she would try to leave as unobtrusively as possible. He was civil to her boys when addressed, but he let it be known that Lal Devi's sons lacked the firm hand of a father, and were not good company for my two brothers and me.
All three of Lal Devi's sons called him Bharaji (older brother), and showed him great respect. He never got involved in their scrapes. After matriculation, Dudd was working in a textile factory, and barely making a living. Lal Devi was distraught and often asked my mother to intercede with my father on his behalf. He needed a job.
Dudd had grown into a handsome, powerful young man with a round face and hair parted in the middle. He had a rolling gait, swaying from side to side like a boxer. He loved playing volleyball. His one-on-one and two on two games were worth watching! They could last up to an hour, and be a marvel of defensive play and endurance. In the summer evenings, sweat would pour down the gleaming bodies of the players as they took off their undershirts. Dudd would wager some money to make the game interesting, as did the onlookers on the sidelines.
Eventually, my father relented, and hired Dudd as a salesman. Dudd bicycled everywhere in the hot summer months, and proved to be a very good salesman, supplying textile mills with fur they needed for lining the shuttles. On his own, he expanded the range of supplies the loom-owners needed. He was making good money. His dress style improved visibly, as did his volleyball bets on the weekends! Nobody seemed to mind, though my father would shake his head if he saw him playing, and gently remind him to get his bicycle repaired or get a hat and dark glasses to protect himself from the sun. "Remember, you go out in this summer heat, you will go insane." He would remind Dudd that he was now head of the family, and responsible for getting his sister married.
Dudd would try to discipline Sat Pal, his younger brother but then he would relent and let him have extra money. As they had grown with so little and for a change, they seemed to be doing better, we were all happy about it. In a couple of years, Dudd owned a scooter, instead of a bicycle. For his defensive prowess in volleyball, the area volleyball teams courted him. Two years later, when his team lost in the finals, he was named defensive player of the year. For the kids in our neighborhood, he was our idol. In the league tournament, he had his own cheering section that was the envy of even established players.
His wagers were becoming exorbitant. His visits to my father's shop had become erratic and infrequent. My father would wonder what Dudd was up to?
On a Sunday morning, Lal Devi was summoned to our house. My father told her that Dudd owed him several thousand rupees. He apparently had been collecting from the factories but not paying for the credit. She broke into tears and fell on his feet. She pleaded with him to have pity on Dudd, and not terminate the arrangements at the shop. She told him and my mother that Dudd was often coming home late at night and drunk.
My father showed his disgust but did not harass Dudd in anyway. Soon thereafter, we heard that Dudd had left for Calcutta. For years afterward, Lal Devi had little news of him. Now Sat Pal was working and helping Lal Devi. She had retired from her teaching job, and mostly went to the temple or listened to the discourses of holy men.
One evening after dinner, Lal Devi approached my father to get Dudd home, as he was very sick. He apparently had gotten married and fathered a son. Lal Devi knew that my father had a good friend in Calcutta. This friend reached Duud in Calcutta put him on the train to make the journey to Amritsar.
It was a winter evening when Dudd returned home. Next day, he came to pay respects to my father. When I saw him sitting in the cane-backed chair in our large living room, he looked half his size. He was thin, wearing a flapping white bush-shirt and open toed chappals. His cheeks were sunken, and his round face appeared flattened. He greeted me and my brother with a wan smile, "How big you both have become!"
Later on, the women in the neighborhood whispered that Dudd had TB. He had become addicted to hashish and ganja in Calcutta. It was rumored that it was his wife who supported him, and he was her pimp. He died within the next six months.
Lal Devi never got to see her daughter in-law or grandson.
I wonder now if the lives people like Lal Devi lived then were simpler. And yet how connected we were. She seemed to know everyone in a street of about twelve houses. At one level she had her pride and showed her disdain for rich neighbors who snubbed her. Through all her privations and suffering, she remained God-fearing and devout.
© Vinod Puri 2016
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