If such things have any beginnings at all, it began the day the old man decided to get iron railings installed at the back terrace. This had remained undone for many years; after he had used up all his money, his wife’s money, and the Housing Loan for building the house. It was a big house, and his wife had never imagined she would live in such a house in her life.
It had three main rooms in three corners. The fourth corner, near the entrance, was the kitchen. There was a drawing room, called ‘TV room’, and a small guest room. The space between the inverted V of the roof and the ceiling was used as the puja room. The wooden staircase to the puja room rose from one of the main rooms. The other two main rooms had a narrow balcony outside, which was used for hanging washings, and for having tea with elderly relatives in the evenings.
All this was on the first floor of the house. The ground floor, similar in construction, was divided into two portions, which were rented out to make up the instalments of the Housing Loan.
The balcony had iron railings, with horizontal iron rings welded at regular intervals. In these, the old man’s daughter, studying economics at the University, had placed used tins of refined vegetable oils filled with mud. These sprouted weak plants with sharp, small flowers.
There was a small landing outside the entrance, from where a cemented staircase descended to the ground floor. This was the back-terrace for which railings had now become suddenly necessary, because the baby daughter of the elder son had become old enough to run around in the house.
The old man was Superintendent in a government Department. He had had three sons in a row, and then a daughter. The two older sons were also working in government offices. They were married and lived in the house. The youngest son had done his M.A. last year, and had got a job in a public sector engineering company. He was in Bombay, during the initial training period. The daughter was studying at the University.
The two grandchildren were from the eldest son. A daughter beginning at the alphabet and numbers, for whom the railings had become necessary, and a son who was still an infant. The second son did not have a child yet. The two daughters-in-law were working as bank clerks. The children were looked after during daytime by a servant girl brought from the elder daughter-in-law’s village, and by the old woman.
While the old man was musing about talking to his old mistry in office about the railings, the old woman suggested that something needed to be done about the puja room. This meant that a carpenter too would be needed. All her life the old woman had voiced her opinions and desires at the last and effective moments. The mistry and the carpenter were working in the old man’s Department, and he decided to speak to them. Their being in his Department had always helped his money go a longer way, since the Department itself dealt in construction material. Like most things the old woman had wanted in her life – and she had not wanted much – the investment in puja room was unexceptionable.
Puja had a special place in the family’s life. From early childhood the old woman had brought up the children on a regime of twice-daily worship. Every morning, before leaving for work or education, each member of the family put some red-hot coal in an incense-burner and sat in prayer before the gods in the puja room; and there was a similar prayer every evening after sunset. The womenfolk also tinkled a small bell during prayer. The two daughters-in-law had initially found this tedious, but like good daughters-in-law they had fallen in line.
The railings job was simple. These came in prefabricated frames, and had only to be welded to the steel rods of the cement structure. A half-day’s job. Puja room was different. It was left to the old woman.
She wanted made a wooden platform set on short curved legs, with a temple-like canopy supported on rods carved like pillars of a temple. She wished to hang silk curtains under the canopy, to shield the gods when they were not being actively worshipped. She had been saving the right cloth. The carpenter had brought along his young apprentice, and the basic unfinished work took the whole day. In the evening she placed the mandap, with the gods installed, against the middle of the wall of the puja room, exactly beneath the apex of the roof. Now the whole floor could be used for sitting before the gods.
When the family returned home from work that day, everyone came up to see. The only light in the room came from a bulb hanging from its wire at the centre of the apex-beam. Earlier, the gods had been placed directly below this bulb on an embroidered Kashmiri mat. Now they were under their new curtained canopy against the wall at the far end. On parting the curtains it was seen that the weak bulb did not light the gods. On their calm faces fell a dark shadow of the canopy. Only their toes were bright.
The family’s reaction was mixed. Sensing this, the old woman said that a new bulb will be fitted above the canopy. She said this as if this had been the plan all along. She explained that now the whole family and guests could sit together under the old light, while the gods will have their own new light.
There was an animated conversation over dinner. The elder son had a suggestion.
“Now we can have large keertans, and invite a lot of people”.
This caused a silence. Everyone did not greet the suggestion. The elder son was widely known, even in the neighbourhood, to be very obedient son. This was a very good thing, but somehow caused vague uneasiness in everyone. The daughter broke the silence.
“We could make skylights in the roof. Then we can have daytime keertans.” She had seen pictures of skylights in magazines. The elder daughter-in-law smiled widely at her sister-in-law.
“Then we will have to cut the roof, and fit new frames for the glass. That would be very expensive, no?”
“Yes, welders charge hourly,” said the old man.
“Anyway, we will think of that later,” the elder son said reasonably. The daughters-in-law remained silent, and after some general talk the discussion ended.
Before breaking up for TV, while the daughters-in-law were clearing the dishes, the old woman said concludingly that two large durries would have to be bought, for covering the whole floor for keetans. The second son had been reading the newspaper all through dinner.
That night the elder daughter-in-law did not speak to her husband, and got up several times during the night to go to the toilet. In one such trip, towards dawn, she met the old woman coming out of the toilet. She was told to go, since she was up so early, and wake up the daughter who had to study for her exams. The second daughter-in-law had wanted to talk with her husband. But he had not finished the newspaper, and he read it till they turned out the lights.
From the next day, everyone had a new alertness. Women in the neighbourhood remarked upon it, and they were invited to the puja room in the afternoons to admire the plans being made. The daughters-in-law were courteous to the bank customers. The grandchildren got more attention, and new games were played with them on the now safer back-terrace. The daughter bought some posters from the Hare Rama Hare Krishna van that had been visiting the University for some time. She stuck these in the puja room. The electrician came and fitted the new bulb. The old man, who had been feeling somewhat sidelined in life since making the house, enjoyed the renewed activity around him.
The first keertan was held, for which all the relatives living in the town were invited. All came; although menfolk brought their women and children in the morning, and left to attend to urgent work, returning late in the evening. There was great activity all day.
During the days preparations were being made of the keertan, the second daughter-in-law reminded her husband about curtains in their room. She had been wanting to change them for quite some time, and they had together selected a design in a shop some time back. The existing curtains were hung on a spring-wire, and she had always wanted proper pelmets. Since the carpenter was coming for several days to do the puja room anyway, the pelmets could be got fitted too. He told her to buy the curtains, and on the way to office that day he met the carpenter and told him about pelmets.
The carpenter’s apprentice brought the material for pelmets on the day of the keertan. He had finished with the puja room only the day before. Somehow pelmets had not been mentioned to the family. So the old woman and the elder daughter-in-law came to know of these on keertan day, along with the relatives who thought these would make the curtains look beautiful. Like everyone, the second daughter-in-law too was natural about it. The old woman told the apprentice to do the work next day because the noise would disturb the keertan.
The apprentice started his work on the next day. The carpenter, who had to do office work during daytime, came in the evening for the finishing touches, as usual. That evening the elder daughter-in-law came home with a migraine. She used to have these attacks during her second pregnancy, but lately this had improved. Tying her head with a ribbon she retired to her room with her infant son, and did not join others for dinner.
During dinner nobody spoke for a long time. The carpenter’s hammering was shaking the walls.
“I was thinking we should fit pelmets in all rooms”, the second son broke the silence.
“Yes, otherwise it will look odd,” said the daughter, “although for my room I don’t mind. I don’t even want curtains on the windows.”
“That is not your room”, said the old woman. “You will get married and go away. That room is for Prakash and his wife.”
Prakash was the youngest son, now in Bombay. A match had already been found for him. The second daughter-in-law addressed the old woman for the first time since the keertan.
“Oh, Prakash wouldn’t be leaving Bombay so soon. It is a good city, especially for a young man.”
“And I think Prakash did not like the photo of the girl we sent,” said the daughter. “I think he loves another girl”.
“Don’t speak of things you don’t understand,” the old woman said curtly to the daughter, and avoided looking at the daughter-in-law, who got up and went to the kitchen to fetch more water. The elder son was saying that the girl would be good for Prakash, when his wife entered carrying the crying baby. She handed him the baby saying that she couldn’t sleep in the noise of hammering, and went back to her room. The old woman got up, and went for her last puja of the day.
Next day the old man told the carpenter to fix pelmets in all rooms. From the following week the apprentice came every day. Hammering and sawing went on late into the nights.
One day the elder daughter-in-law told her husband that the baby’s things got mixed up with other clothes in their cupboard. It would be better if a small wardrobe could be fitted above their bed, because everyone was disturbed especially when the baby woke up at nights. He spoke to the old man one day, who discussed this with the old woman that night. She agreed; it was for their only grandson.
Hammering and sawing continued.
The younger daughter-in-law spoke to her husband about her dressing table. It had come with her dowry; but for one reason or other the mirror had never been got fitted onto its frame. She had been using the common dressing table in the T.V. room. Now that the carpenter was available the mirror could be got fitted easily. He told the carpenter and, while speaking to the old man over phone on some other matter, mentioned this in passing. The old man told the old woman. She did not say anything.
During these days the elder daughter-in-law wrote a letter to her parents asking them to send the double-bed which was a part of her dowry. It had been left since the wedding day with her parents because the old woman had told her son before marriage that it was healthier, and more convenient for babies, to sleep on mattresses spread on the floor. Like in all matters he had obeyed, although the daughter-in-law had been very upset about this. But she had got busy in child bearing, and had forgotten about it.
Having written the letter she told her husband about it. He did not mention this to anyone. The bed arrived promptly, because it was a matter of prestige between in-laws. Coolies delivered and installed the bed with much hefting and manoeuvering one afternoon, when only the old woman was at home.
“The baby will fall down and get hurt,” she told crossly to the coolies. They smiled politely and shuffled their feet. That night she did not have the usual discussion with the old man before sleep. He spoke, but she pretended to be asleep. He was worried about expenses. It had been more than a fortnight, and the carpenter was far from finished.
Prakash came home on a short vacation. Actually it was more than a vacation. The old woman had written to him to come home and finally consent to the marriage. The girl’s parents wanted an early decision, so that they could negotiate elsewhere, if necessary. Prakash had a secret ambition to have a ‘love marriage’, but his small courage had wilted after a couple of encounters with Bombay girls. The family sat together one evening, and he said yes. Everyone was overjoyed. Planning for the marriage started.
Prakash liked the alterations being made in the house, and had active discussions with the carpenter. Relatives dropped in to share the happiness. The house resounded with hilarity and carpentry. Although the tenants had been getting restive at the continuing noise, they could not help being pleased at the coming marriage.
It occurred to Prakash one day that after his transfer from Bombay had been arranged, and after he was married, he would be living in the third main room. That was the room with the staircase to the puja room, and everyone going up to the puja room had to pass through it. He talked to the old man about this.
That night there was a prolonged discussion between the old man and the old woman. The old man saw reason in their staircase being a disturbance to Prakash and his wife. But the old woman found it hard to accept. Years back she had planned that the three sons would live with their wives in the three main rooms, and the daughter would be married off. They themselves would die anyway. It was unimaginable that the staircase to the puja room could be a disturbance to anyone. The old man reasoned with her, whispering in the silence of the sleeping house, but she would not accept. She was very upset, and could not sleep that night. She decided to speak to Prakash first thing next morning. He was to leave for Bombay by the evening train.
But morning was a hectic time; with so many people getting ready for offices, breakfast to be cooked, tiffin-boxes to be prepared, and relatives and children to be looked after. Later in the day some old classmates of Prakash dropped in, and the carpenter’s apprentice arrived and started his work. The old woman found herself deferring her talk with Prakash. In daylight, and in the bustle and noise of the house, her mind began to sense the meaning of the old man’s words last night. During her morning puja, alone in the puja room, her heart was strained in prayer.
Prakash’s friends stayed for lunch, and helped him pack his suitcase afterwards. The old woman heard their laughter in the third room. It was afternoon. When Prakash came out to fetch something from the living room, she casually asked him if the staircase would be inconvenient in his room. Prakash was walking back to his room, a pair of socks dangling in his hands, still smiling from his friends’ jokes.
“Of course,” he said, “it will be like living on the street”, and went inside to his room, grinning at his joke.
The old woman did not speak much with anyone after this. The day was very full. Everyone returned early from their offices to see off Prakash at the railway station. It was a different Prakash they were seeing off this time. The old woman, as usual, did not go to the station. Later in the night the old man asked her if she had spoken to Prakash about the staircase. She did not reply. She remained awake till late, and did not pretend to be asleep.
These days, the new staircase is being made adjacent to the main toilet. Walls have had to be broken brick by brick, and the old staircase has been dismantled. The tenants have complained, and there is bad feeling in the house. The third main room cannot be used. It is full of masonry and woodwork. The daughter sleeps in the TV room. The old man and woman sleep in the guest room. Hammering and sawing goes on late into the nights. As they lie in darkness in the guest room they hear the noise, and they have little to discuss anymore.