‘Come, Sister Fatima...’

Print edition : August 17, 2018

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Baldev Singh has published more than 50 novels and numerous collections of short stories. In 2011, he won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel “Dhahwan Dilli de Kingre”.

Hina Nandrajog, Associate Professor, Vivekananda College, Delhi, translates from Punjabi and Hindi into English and has won the Katha Award and the Sahitya Akademi Award.

This true story translated from Punjabi about the author’s mother is excerpted from “Bridge Across the Rivers”.

I AM spring-cleaning the house as I do every year just before Diwali. I drag superfluous things out of the house to the courtyard. I want to make full use of Sunday. I have also managed to get the children to cooperate. They enjoy dragging out old shoes, empty bottles, used schoolbooks and notebooks, threadbare plastic webbing tape, defunct tubes, switches, broken toys, old bicycle tyres and a whole lot of other junk. This is as engrossing as any game as far as they are concerned. I am amazed! God knows how much trash Bebe has thrown inside the store. “They may come in useful someday,” she says to everyone.

Today Bebe is probably visiting someone in the neighbourhood, otherwise she would have got annoyed at this misdemeanour. She would have picked up sundry things and asked us, “Why are you throwing this? And this shoe? This is still in good condition. Does anyone ever discard toys that one’s children have played with? Only the fortunate ones have these things....”

Things are piled haphazardly in the courtyard like a second-hand goods shop. The wife has emptied out the bag of dried up rotis from the kitchen. “Throw out these as well,” she said, turning up her nose at the fungus-infested rotis. The children come, heaving under the weight of Bebe’s old spinning wheel that has been partially eaten by termites. “Let’s get rid of this rubbish too,” I think. These 25 years I have never seen Bebe spinning on it. But she dusts it occasionally. Sometimes she even murmurs little nothings to it, as if it were made of flesh and bone. But I know that all its joints and hinges are loose.

Now I hope a scrap collector will come along before Bebe returns. But what I fear happens. Bebe’s walking stick comes tapping on the paved ground into the courtyard, and she looks at the scattered heap with astonishment, “What are you up to, son?”

I look at Bebe like a thief caught red-handed.

“And why have you brought this out?” A distressed look appears on mother’s face. “Is this to be discarded?” She looks at the spinning wheel with affection. Her eyes glisten. I feel that Bebe is hurt. But instead of owning up to shame, I ask in an irritated tone, “Bebe, what will you do with this? You have never spun a thing.”

“No, son. So what if I have never spun anything? It doesn’t mean that we should throw it out of the house. I haven’t done any work for the past ten years either. I haven’t cooked a meal; never cleaned the place. Have you thrown me out?” Bebe’s argument silences me. “What do you know about this? This is something that I hold in trust for Fatima. I will never let it go as long as I am alive. You can do what you like with it once I’m dead,” announces Bebe, and pulls the spinning wheel out of the littered heap, beginning to croon softly to it.

I look at Bebe and the spinning wheel by turn. The spindle is bent. The string that turns the spindle is missing altogether. As far as physical conditions go, Bebe is little better than the spinning wheel. Her knees ache, the teeth are missing, and her eyesight is very weak.

“You were a baby at that time. About three-four years old.” Bebe begins to look at the past fifty years through the spinning wheel. “I remember every bit of it. It was about sunset when Fatima came crying to our house. She said, ‘Oh, my dear, I’ve heard the nation has become free. And Pakistan has been created. We’ll have to go there. My Abba and Chacha are already packing our things.’ It was as if I stopped breathing. Fatima wouldn’t stop crying. She was crying and speaking simultaneously, ‘Sister, how will we leave these lanes, this village, this house, these lands, this country? God knows what sort of people live there? I’ve not even spent two days at my maternal grandparents’ place. I get bored without you. What will I do now?’”

I gape at Bebe’s choked voice. Bebe is looking far away.

“Here, Bebe, are you crying?” I ask, surprised.

Bebe sighs and attempts a weak laugh. “What else do I have left except tears? It has been fifty years since then, but it seems to have happened yesterday. She gave me this when she left. She used to say that it was dearer to her than sons. If you had been any older at that time, you would have seen how the spinning wheel seemed to talk. The pole of the spinning wheel seemed to keep time with our tunes....” Bebe heaves a sigh. Wipes her eyes. But they fill again. “She kept caressing it when she left. She said, ‘Who knows, the nations may become one again? Then I’ll come to take my spinning wheel back....’ What could one say to someone leaving like this? Leaving behind all ancestral possessions...!”

Bebe speaks softly to herself. God knows whether she is talking to the spinning wheel or to Fatima. I do not wish to disturb Bebe at such an emotional moment. I hush the children with silent gestures. They are really excited. They examine the things by turning them all over and upside down. But when they drop something, they steal an apprehensive look at Bebe and me and place their fingers on their lips and motion to each other to keep quiet.

The scrap collector arrives. Bebe is holding on to the spinning wheel as if she is afraid of it being snatched away.

The scrap collector has scavenged all the odds and ends. These people are marvellous. They make a living out of things that we consider junk. Now the scrap collector stands aside to calculate the price. How much iron, how many bottles, how much broken glass, how much plastic and waste paper.... Different materials carry different prices.

Bebe is still dusting and cleaning the spinning wheel. “Son, there was so much killing then.... Oh God! People became worse than beasts. Utterly wild like animals. The Muslims were still inside their homes. Our people began to loot their houses, began to set their houses on fire. Drove their cattle into their own pens....”

“Didn’t the Muslims fight back, Bebe?”

“How could they fight, son? The very people they trusted were the leaders of the looting and killing mobs. The Muslims threw down their heads in humiliation like sheep. There was an open space in front of our house in our village; all the Muslims were herded there.”

“They say the Muslims killed a lot of our people on the other side.”

“They must have, son. What we did to them, they must have done to us. The animal is within man. Only the horns are invisible!” Bebe’s face indicates that she is looking at the burning houses of the Partition she lived through.

The scrap collector sums up the amount and hands over the money. I place this money before Bebe, who is watching the groaning-moaning multitudes of people crawling before her with sad, brimming eyes. “No, son. What will I do with money? But son, don’t throw this spinning wheel of mine. Fatima! God knows where she would be now! She was dearer to me than my own sister. She must be thinking, ‘My spinning wheel is there. The countries might have been divided, but our love hasn’t been severed.’ I met her in my dream yesterday. No one can stop that, can they?”

I have read a lot about “freedom achieved at the stroke of midnight”. But Bebe seems to be living out an agonising facet of that reality.

“Here, Bebe, let me put it back in the house or you won’t stop crying!” I want Bebe to come out of the past.

“Son! How would you feel if someone drags you out of a prosperous home and tells you to go wherever you like, but never to come back! Today people might wonder how that is possible. But I have seen it happen,” sighs Bebe.

I drag the spinning wheel inside.

A few days later, we decided to get the house whitewashed and the doors and windows painted. I found a labourer for the job and gave him the contract after explaining the scope of the work. I would pay him for his labour and provide the material myself. If one employs them on daily wages, then they dawdle, never getting around to finishing the job. They take an hour just to drink a cup of tea. If one gives the work on contract, then they work like the devil. They don’t stop working even after dark. One has to ask them to stop. But one has to keep an eye on them during the contract. They try to get away with shoddy work.

In just about three days, the men finish the whitewashing and begin painting the doors and windows. I give them instructions when I leave for work—“This house is being painted for the first time since we came to the city from the village. Please do the work thoroughly. Don’t paint over the rust.” They promise me, “Yes, rest assured... all right.” But according to my wife they do exactly as they please. “After every hour they say—‘Some tea, Bibiji.’ I haven’t ever seen them eat in the break,” she says exasperatedly.

One day when I return, I see Bebe getting her spinning wheel painted by the labourer. She is sitting beside him. The labourer is also very happy. Now these people have learnt some stratagems. Bebe does not like to see me return; I can gauge this from her face. The glow on her face as she had watched the spinning wheel being painted has faded. Perhaps Bebe is afraid I will be annoyed.

“There was some extra paint. I thought it would go waste, so let’s use it on the spinning wheel,” Bebe offers justification.

“Bebe, you have never used it. Nor will it ever work.” I show my annoyance.

“It will work, son, it will.” There is quiet determination writ large on Bebe’s face.

“You are wasting their time unnecessarily.”

“A half hour won’t make any difference. See how beautiful it looks. As if Fatima just gave it to me!” The lustre is back on Bebe’s face.

The labourer brings all the colours he has. He is also enjoying himself. Bebe tells him, “It belongs to my friend. Now she is in Pakistan. God knows if she is alive or not.”

“Then I will not charge a penny. Just give me another cup of tea,” the labourer says when he sees the sadness on Bebe’s face.

At times I feel that there is humanity in the labourer. At other times I feel that he is a trickster. He makes arrangements for his needs by appearing to be very simple and sweet. My wife also says, “He is really very simple, poor soul. He’s left his country. He has no one here.” But I know that these labourers chuckle among themselves when they recount how they fooled people they worked for.

The labourer has displayed great artistry and polished the spinning wheel beautifully. Now he places it in the sun. Bebe is watching it from a distance. Though it is old, it appears to be new.

Bebe’s daughters-in-law turn up their noses at the spinning wheel and Bebe. They nudge each other. Bebe understands everything but says nothing.

“Now Bebe will spin cotton,” the younger daughter-in-law says loudly to her older counterpart, in Bebe’s hearing.

“We will give the contract of weaving sheets and durries for our daughter’s wedding only to Bebe.” The younger one laughs heartily at this.

“The sum total of all the knowledge you have in your bellies, I have in my nails alone. I know you very well.” There is anger and indignation on Bebe’s face.

“Bebe, we are only talking about your spinning wheel as old as Independence. Why are you quarrelling with us?” The younger daughter-in-law is in the mood for appeasement but does not sound very conciliatory.

“Go away. What do you know about the meaning of Independence? You only believe in eating, drinking and making merry!” Bebe is more irritated.

I know that if her daughters-in-law don’t keep quiet Bebe can even go into a frenzy of anger. I go and tell them to mind their own business.

They leave but the younger one ripostes as she goes, “We’ll see what Bebe spins on this spinning wheel.”

“Let the paint dry, then I’ll show you how I can spin. Hasn’t been born yet, and look at her talk!” Bebe’s face flashes a challenge.

The paintwork is complete. The peculiar odour of paint that pervades the house is pleasant. One feels proud of the clean and tidy house.

The paint on the spinning wheel is dry now.

But what is this? Bebe has again fetched the spinning wheel that has been kept carefully wrapped in a khes [a hand-woven coarse cotton shawl or coverlet] inside. She looks at me and says, “Do these women let me rest?” Her pointed remark is addressed to her daughters-in-law.

The latter smirk and snicker.

“An ascetic came to beg at the door. They say, ‘He must have heard the sound of my spinning wheel.’ Today I’ll show them.”

The daughters-in-law laugh again.

“How will you spin now, Bebe? The spinning wheel is in no better condition than you are.” The younger daughter-in-law is forever teasing her.

“Spinning is an art. What would you know about it?” Bebe is not one to accept defeat easily.

Her face reflects determination, she has long years of experience and she takes pride in her friend’s spinning wheel.

Bebe sits on a stool and oils the joints. She puts in a new string. She oils the connecting pole. Then she spins it to straighten the bent spindle. With a slight pressure of her finger she straightens the spindle. Then she brings out some cotton saved up from some distant past.

The daughters-in-law are watching her movements and laughing. But Bebe is absolutely serious. She first tests the empty spinning wheel by giving it a twirl. Everything seems to be fine. Then she takes a little ball of cotton and twists it with her hands. Before bringing the cotton in contact with the spindle she closes her eyes and meditates for a while and then says softly, “Come, Sister Fatima, let us spin!”

When Bebe twirls the wheel and swings her left hand backwards after touching it to the head of the spindle, a thin long thread is visible for all to see. The daughters-in-law watch, agape. They cover their open mouths with their hands in surprise.

Bebe spins on, eyes streaming.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

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