I have been in my native village for the past few days. I will be leaving today for my nest in the city. I was here for my cousin's tilak (engagement), which was yesterday. He is two or three years younger than me—and I am twenty-three. He often sits with me to speculate what the girl he is to marry must be like. He does that in a thinking-out-loud fashion. I infer his primary concern is how full her breasts are. He hasn't met her yet, nor has he been shown a picture of her; he will be marrying her in two weeks.
She has only been inspected by the women of our family and his father; they are the ones who would have to live with her, after all. His father is appreciative of the fact that she keeps a ghoonghat (veil) long enough for him to not see her face but short enough to give him a glimpse of a little fat on her waist. "Ladki hatti-katti khae piye ghar ki lag rahi hai (The girl seems to belong to a well-fed family)," is the joke he proudly repeats to everyone who has approached him since that day. Each century has its 'normal'. This did not appear to me as the 'normal' of our century. This belonged to the 'normal' of a century that was still ploughing our field with an ox-drawn wooden plough.
It is December and the rural areas have started to get chillier than the cities. I find myself oddly appreciating the comforting staleness of the city roads, warmed by stench and pollution in the winters. The village is cold and relatively fresh. Chai sustains winter life. Cow dung is holy. Eating on a kuchcha (mud) floor mopped with dung-thinned with water, takes us closer to God, akin to the act of taking a dip in the holy river Ganga. Touching a chamaar (untouchable) who goes by the name Kapooray takes you closer to God in a way, you are made to take a bath and squirted upon with Ganga's water. It is cold. Bathing is not an option, nor is touching Kapooray. Injustice, if left unchecked, seeps into our culture and becomes a norm.
Kapooray, the sixty-three-year-old, skimpily clothed man, has been fixing our toilets for the last four hours. The toilet is built fifty meters away from the house in an area of unkempt vegetation. The path to the little smothering room is dark, probably the older men of the family did not want the neighbours to find out that their bahu-betiyan (daughters and daughters-in-law) excrete. This shame popped up quite recently in the older men and until then we (and of course their bahu-betiyan) went to the nearby canal to relieve ourselves. Defecation was a solo or even a group activity depending on how capable one is of saving oneself from the wild animals or lecherous predators lurking in the bushes.
I bring Kapooray his chai in a plastic disposable cup; the cup is so tiny that the brim touches his nose as he bottoms-up it to pour in the cold content in his mouth in just one gulp. My caste is a label of pride, his is a slur. He usually steps forward and touches the ground a few inches before my feet to pay his respects. I am twenty-three and he sixty-three. I hate the fact that sometimes I tend to take pride in this act. Then, I am my Daadaji.
It is quite obvious that my Daadaji’s miraculous laddoos help the (girl) foetus grow some balls before they decide to pop out
What respect does one gain by humiliating others, Gandhi once asked. He wouldn't have this query if he observed my Daadaji’s countenance when Kapooray touches his feet—the soil just before his feet, precisely. An untangled mist of pride. I've felt the shallowness behind this mist. I have sensed the humiliation Kapooray hides after he touches my feet. Cold hand, cold weather, cold hearts, iced people and icicles of caste. I leave on a bus to the city; the sun is setting before me.
Daadaji was once a government officer at the village level. He is retired now. He is referred to as Panditji (priest). He is close to God and perhaps for the same reason, he has remedies for things that have brought science on its knees. You're facing troubles having babies? He comes to the rescue! Have a troubling case of piles? Meet him on the holy days! Having too many girl-children and not a boy? He is the knight. It doesn't matter if your foetus is a girl or a boy, he has a laddoo (sweetmeat) so miraculous that you would have the fortune of hearing "Badhai ho, ladka hua hai," (Congratulations, you have a boy) on the day of delivery. Your lineage will thrive. Putra-ratna (boy-child) will be gifted to you by his esoteric laddoo. Boys add value. The world revolves because of boys, doesn't it? Daadaji is the ringmaster of this circus. It is quite obvious that my Daadaji’s miraculous laddoos help the (girl) foetus grow some balls before they decide to pop out.
I have almost reached my place in the city. The road is unnaturally empty today. The trees are draped in an eerie silence and the night has grasped the space. I fancy the idea of a chai before I walk further towards the house. I sit under a tree sipping chai at an empty roadside chaiwalla's. The chaiwalla himself is standing close to the stove to keep himself warm.
On the other side of the road is a bus stop and behind it sits a presumably homeless woman on the ground trying to make up a fire. The wood seems obstinate, she has no fire—but there is smoke in her poor old eyes. Poverty is a state where the gods snub the poor and put damp emaciated wood in their share.
A little girl of eight or nine is eagerly looming over her head. Her clothes seem insufficient for the cold. She is waiting for the fire to get ready, with a shine in her eyes each time there is a spark in the firewood. She is repeatedly cleaning a dented aluminium pot under the municipality water supply tap in the hope of maybe-I-get-cooked-food-today. Maybe-I-get-cooked-food-today hope is inherently followed by a maybe-I-sleep-warmly-near-fire-tonight hope.
Maybe she dreams in her comfort sleep and the next morning, perhaps she keeps those dreams in the patched pocket of the ripped shirt before she stands at the chauraha (cross-roads) for the day, wiping car windows, selling roses or water bottles, while being cursed by people and havildars (police constables) throughout the process. Maybe-I-get-cooked-food-today. Maybe-I-get-cooked-food-today. Maybe-I-get-cooked-food-today.
The dew from the leaves drips over me every now and then. My hands, feet and nose are numb. I am inappropriately dressed for this cold, like the girl—but unlike the girl, I often fail to estimate the extent of coldness. The old woman has finally kindled a candle-flame sized fire. A sudden breeze rains dewdrops over the two and the foetal flame. The fire, like my trail of thoughts, is smoke again. I get up hurriedly and prepare to leave, lest the woman should approach me for help. The child has her lips puckered and I am hoarding grief. The Decembers of some people are longer than the Decembers of others.
I am walking home. I realise that my shadow in the streetlight has three copies. One walks before me, another behind. And the third one, the third one is oscillating between the two. That is me.
Note: Daadaji's Laddoo was simultaneously accepted by The Aleph Review and kitaab.org. While we do not publish pieces that are set to appear elsewhere, we have made an exception due to extenuating personal circumstances of the author that caused a communication delay.
Prashant Mishra is a writer/photographer based out of Allahabad, India. He has previously made a place for himself in prestigious literary and art spaces like The Alipore Post, The Remnant Archive, ShabdAaweg Review, to name a few. He has also received a nomination for the prestigious Pushcart Prize 2022. When he is not busy working he can be found on his little Instagram page: @door._.darshan