By the Roadside

by Mita Kapur

As a tourist traveling on the road, it's very common to stop for chai just anywhere, wandering into someone's garh before craning your neck up at yet another painted ceiling of a dome. Outside this particular home, sunrays winked back from the thin, long strips of packaged foil scattering blue, green, and silver shadows on the dappled sand. The strips of gutka hung like a partial veil on the wooden shack where Jamuna crouched. The borla on her forehead shone and each time she turned her head towards the sun, its rays met each stone, splitting into mini-rainbows surrounded by a string of pearls.

Languidly resting her head against the wood, she watched her husband Shankar stir tea that boiled over a hissing gas stove, its flames escaping the bottom of the saucepan, leaping up to reach the top edge of the vessel. Placid and seeming content, she looked at me with half-baked curiosity. I moved close enough to see each wrinkle on her face and each furrow running down her neck, to point an admiring finger at her gold choker. Her deadpan face made her adornments, her wrinkles and her jewels, stand out even more.

As I sat on a rickety metal stool next to her, I asked "This is so pretty, is this real kundan?" while fingering her borla. Her eyes, darkened by kohl, snapped alive as she rasped, "Are you going to steal it away from me?"

"It's a gal pattiyo," she said, fingering her gold collar. "I don't you have one of you own?" she asked, eyeing my bare neck and ear lobes, almost pitying me.

"Did you get this as your dowry?"

"No, I got it made. I earn, you know."

"How much do you earn?"

"Why should I tell you, are you paying me anything?"

"Where are you from, what do you do, where are you staying here, are you a Jaath, a Choudhary?"

I began to doubt my journalistic instincts and belted out squeakyclean answers like "I'm an Indian and I write."

"Bas? Does it pay enough for kharcho pani?"

"No," the man by my side piped in, merrily enjoying my sheepish look.

Time overwhelms us with its continuity. She had come to Parvatpura, a village between Dundlod and Nawalgarh in Rajasthan, as an eleven-year-old bride. "I've been married sixty years," she said. She was at ease with the span of a lifetime of marriage. I'd only done eighteen years and felt as if I deserved a "Mrs. Most Tolerant" title.

"You have grandchildren?" I asked her. Her chest swelled up, her borla swung with pride. "Ghano, (plenty) I have ten, twelve of them."

It seemed we were at a game, trying to even our score at repartee. "I don't know how to read, never went to school, neither did my daughters, but my granddaughters are studying."

"Until what level will you let them study?" I asked.

"Ghano padh giyo (they are studying a lot), they're sixteen-seventeen years and still studying," replying in a matter-of-fact tone. "No, we won't marry them off early," she.answered defiantly, rebuffing all chances of being cornered by me. Then, pointing to Shankar, she added with unmistakable pride, "He reads the papers and can sign his name."

"Do you earn enough?"

"If I earned enough, would I ask you for money for taking a picture?"
Jamuna had ticked off the man with me who was taking her pictures: "Ek goro aayo, photu khicho par peese koni de, bhaga diyo (a foreigner had come by to click my picture, he refused to pay, I told him to run away)."

"Then who pays for your clothes, going to a mela?"

"My mother when she was alive and now my brother."

Sixty years is a long time! She still gets her clothes from her mother's house? I was speechless. "You think it's right, doesn't your brother's wife object?"

Jamuna was horrified. "Why would she object? We paid a price for her when we got her married to my brother and got her home."

Rustic logic beat me silent.

"You don't feel embarrassed?" I said trying to awaken her self-esteem.

Shankar answered, "sheero khano acha lage, peesa ghar aata bhi acha lage (you like halwa more if it comes for free, so why not money or clothes)?"
She sensed my agitation, "Thanko pihar koni (you don't have your parent's home)?

I told her that I did but that I didn't take money from them. A heavy man sitting next to me pitched in. "You must teach her—she must get something from her parents when she goes to visit." Shankar and Jamuna laughed.

A clock ticked behind her, and following my questioning gaze, she said, "I have this clock but can't read the time. I see the sun, I see the shadows, I tell time better than you."

She looked for ways to challenge me. "Are you going to write about me?" she asked while preening like a model.

I nodded.

"How will you remember everything I say, you're not writing?"

I pointed to my sleek recorder. "It's all in there."

She looked at the device with innocent wonder."It's filled inside this, I didn't even come to know."

"Where is your aadmi (husband)?" she asked, almost menacingly.

I tilted my head towards the big man with me. "He is."

She thought I was bluffing. "Na na, yeh na hai thaaro aadmi (he can't be your husband)."

Another man, with silver white hair and cataract in his eyes, answered my puzzled look. "Aise hai ji, yeh toh laage bhari, aap laago halke, yeh joda kaise miliyo (he is heavy weight and you are tiny, how is that a match as a couple)?"

That made my day. I hooted while my husband grinned sheepishly. In a seriously educative tone I explained, "We chose each other, our parents didn't."

Jamuna still looked perplexed, so I told her, "Ours was a love marriage." She looked as if she'd seen a flying Hanuman. She obviously hadn't heard of Prithviraj Chauhan and Sanyukta's romantic escapades on flying steeds.

"Aa liyo phir kahe ko aadmi (what kind of a husband then)? This is not a marriage, it can't be called a marriage!"

My husband and I hollered with laughter. Her disbelief struck me. With so much love, it's toils and tribulations happening on TV and movies, Jamuna lived in her own cocoon.

I asked, "There have never been any love marriages in your village in these sixty years?"

In her straight, flat tone she said, "in this village, parents fix marriages, chahe kaalo, chahe langdo (whether dark or lame)."

Marital equations in the interiors played on my mind, and I asked, "do you both fight?" Shankar jumped. "Oh yes, we do, sometimes we hit each other. Woh mere deti hai, mein uske deta hun, de dhana dhan. (she hits me, then I hit her, we continue hitting)," he said, flailing his arms up and down to convey the physical vigor of their fights.

"Do you beat him?" Jamuna asked me.
Before I could say anything, Shankar defended me, "she can't, he's so big." Meanwhile Jamuna cackled, "Who will this poor man fight with? She keeps writing all the time."

"You're very beautiful," I said suddenly.

She was quiet, not knowing how to respond, as if mulling over what to say, as if she'd never been told before.

Shankar said softly, his eyes on his wife's face, saying a lot in that one instant, "Yes, she was very beautiful when we got married."

"Then why do you hit her?" I asked.

"Sometimes, badmaashi karti hai, roos jaati hai (she is naughty and sulks), and refuses to cook food."
"Then why don't you cook for her?" The feminist in me wanted to test him.

He retorted, "I do, I make halwa, aloo, puri for her."

I looked at her, raising my eyebrows in question. She turned her face away and winked at me. "He's lying, he can't make all this."

I spotted an old photograph of Shankar in a long, bushy beard. I asked him why he had shaved his beard off. He guffawed, "She asked me too, saying it hurt her in the wrong places."

We looked at each other and grinned; we shared a few things—a good husband—wife fight and a beard that hurt!

The sun was changing colors. Long shadows edged their way up, darkening Jamuna's face, deepening her wrinkles. She pulled her odhni over her head. It was time to move to the next village, walk the by-lanes, catch glimpses of history in ruins. As she waved to us, she said, "It's alright you haven't paid me for the pictures, at least send some back to me. And also what you write about me."

"How will you know what I've written?"

"At least I'll know that you have."

The next morning we stopped to catch a cup of chai with them. Shankar sat outside the shack. His stove was silent. He answered my unspoken question. "She's sulking." Wagging his finger at me, he said, "Wants to travel to your city, like you traveled here."