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Short Story

'The Homecoming' by Usha Priyamvada: A Hindi short story in translation

Print edition : Feb 11, 2022 T+T-
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Usha Priyamvada’s writings depict the life of urban families in the 1960s and 1970s, focussing on the role of women. She retired as a professor of Hindi at the South Asian Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, U.S.

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Poonam Saxena, who translated this story, is a journalist, writer and translator. She translated Dharamvir Bharati’s “Gunahon ka Devta” from Hindi to English (Chander & Sudha), “Scene: 75” and co-authored film-maker Karan Johar’s memoir, “An Unsuitable Boy”.

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“The Homecoming” is from this book (Aleph Book Company, 2020) pages 155–165.

G ajadhar babu looked at the pieces of luggage piled up in the room—two suitcases, basket, bucket. “Whose box is this, Ganeshi?” he asked. Ganeshi, fastening the bedding, said with a mixture of pride, sorrow and shyness, “My wife has packed some besan laddoo s. She said Babuji is fond of them, but now we won’t have the chance to look after you.” Though happy at the prospect of going home, Gajadhar babu also felt sad.

“Once in a while, do remember us,” said Ganeshi, tying the rope around the bedding.

“If you need anything, write to me, Ganeshi. And get your daughter married by November.”

Ganeshi wiped his eyes with the corner of his shoulder cloth. “If you won’t support us, who will?”

Gajadhar babu was ready to leave. This room, his railway quarter, where he had spent so many years, looked bare now that his belongings had been cleared away. The thought of returning to his wife and children was enough to banish the pang of grief at leaving.

Gajadhar babu was happy, very happy. After thirty-five years he was going home. He had spent most of these years alone, and dreamt of the time he would live with his family. It had kept him going. In the eyes of the world, he was successful. He had built a house in the city, married off his older son, Amar; his daughter, Basanti, and the two other children were studying. Because of his job, Gajadhar babu had lived in small-town stations all his life, and his wife and children had stayed in the city so that his children’s education could continue uninterrupted. By nature, Gajadhar babu was affectionate. When the family visited, he chatted and laughed with the children after returning from work, indulged in a bit of loving banter with his wife—their departure always filled him with intense loneliness. Though not particularly romantic, he would remember little things about his wife with a great deal of love. How, even in the summer afternoons, despite the heat, she would keep the cooking fire alight till two and make hot rotis for him when he came back from the station. Even after he’d finished eating, she would heap a little more food on his plate and insist, very lovingly, that he eat it. On reaching home, she had to just hear the sound of his footsteps and she would hasten out of the kitchen, and he would smile shyly. He was finally going to live amidst that love and warm regard again.

***

Gajadhar babu removed his cap and put it on the charpoy, took off his shoes and pushed them to the side. From inside the house came the sound of laughter—it was Sunday and all his children were together, having breakfast. A fond smile appeared on Gajadhar babu’s dried, slightly wizened face; still smiling, he went in without signalling his arrival with a cough. He saw Narendra, hand on waist, probably imitating some dance move he had seen in a film the previous night, while Basanti was doubled over with laughter. His daughter-in-law, Amar’s wife, completely oblivious to where the end of her sari was, whether it was covering her body properly or not, was chortling uninhibitedly. Seeing Gajadhar babu, Narendra sat down with a thump and picking up his cup of tea, stuck it to his lips. His daughter-in-law sobered up and quickly covered her head, but Basanti’s body kept shaking as she tried to suppress her giggles.

Gajadhar babu looked at them smiling. Then he said, “Well, Narendra, what mimicry were you up to?” “Nothing babuji,” said an embarrassed Narendra. Gajadhar babu wanted to participate in the revelry, but the moment he arrived, everyone fell silent and he felt despondent. Sitting down, he said, “Basanti, give me some tea too. Is your amma still at her prayers?”

Basanti looked towards her mother’s room and said, “She’ll be done any minute now,” and began straining the tea for him. His daughter-in-law had already left quietly, now Narendra too took the last sip of his tea and got up. Only Basanti, out of consideration for her father, waited for her mother to emerge from the kitchen. Gajadhar babu took a sip of tea, then said, “Bitti, the tea is insipid.”

“Let me put some more sugar,” said Basanti.

“Let it be, I’ll have some when your amma comes.”

A little later his wife came out with a prayer pot filled with water and, reciting a hymn incorrectly, poured the water into the tulsi plant. As soon as she saw her, Basanti stood up. His wife looked at Gajadhar babu and said, “ Arre , you’re sitting all by yourself; where is everyone?” A sharp pain flared in him, as if from a little splinter in his heart, “They’ve all got busy with their own work—they’re still children, aren’t they?” His wife went into the kitchen. She looked disapprovingly at the unwashed dishes lying around. Then she said, “Dirty dishes everywhere. No one bothers doing things the right way in this house. Finish your prayers and go straight into the kitchen!” She called out for the servant; getting no response, she raised her voice and called out again, then looked at her husband and said, “Bahu must have sent him to the bazaar.” She took a deep breath and lapsed into silence.

Also read: ‘The unique letter’ by D. Ravikumar

Gajadhar babu continued sitting, waiting for his tea and breakfast. Suddenly he remembered Ganeshi. Every morning, before the passenger train arrived, Ganeshi would make hot puris and jalebis. By the time Gajadhar babu woke up and got ready, Ganeshi would have prepared the tea and jalebis and kept them ready for him. And what excellent tea, filled to the brim in a glass tumbler, with a full two-and-a-half spoons of sugar and a thick layer of cream. The passenger train might arrive late at Ranipur but Ganeshi was never late with the tea. He’d never had to tick him off. The complaining voice of his wife struck his thoughts like a blow. The whole day goes in these household irritants, she was grumbling. A lifetime has passed running this household. No one gives a helping hand.

“What does bahu do all the time?”

“She just lies around. Basanti at least goes to college.”

In a moment of enthusiasm, Gajadhar babu called out to Basanti. When Basanti came out of her sister-in-law’s room, Gajadhar babu said, “Basanti, from today you are responsible for the evening meal. Your bhabhi will cook the morning meal.”

Making a long face, Basanti said, “Babuji, I have to study too.”

Gajadhar said tenderly, “You can study in the morning. Your mother is old now, her body no longer has the strength it once had. You and your bhabhi should help in the housework.”

Basanti was silent. After she went away, her mother said softly, “Studying is just an excuse. She is not interested, and why should she be? She has no time, she’s always holed up in Sheela’s house. There are grown-up boys there, I don’t like it one bit. If I forbid her, she doesn’t listen.”

After finishing his tea, Gajadhar babu went into the sitting room. The house was small and arranged in such a way that there was no proper place for Gajadhar babu to stay. The chairs in the sitting room had been pushed against the wall and a narrow charpoy had been placed in the middle of the room for Gajadhar babu. It was a makeshift arrangement, like you would make for a guest. Lying in the room, sometimes he would become aware of the impermanence of his situation. He was reminded of the trains that would arrive and then, after stopping for a while, set off for some other destination.

Because the house was small, the arrangements had to be made in the sitting room itself. His wife did have a small room inside, but one side was crowded with jars of pickles, tins of rice, and boxes of ghee. On the other side were old quilts wrapped in rugs and tied with twine and a big tin trunk full of everyone’s winter clothes. In the middle of the room ran a clothesline on which Basanti would carelessly throw her clothes. He tried his best not to go to that room. Amar and his daughter-in-law had the second room. Before Gajadhar babu arrived, the sitting room had had a set of three cane chairs that Amar had got from his wife’s family. The chairs were padded and upholstered in blue and had cushions embroidered by his daughter-in-law.

Whenever his wife had some particularly lengthy grievance to air, she would spread out her mat in the sitting room. One day she turned up with her mat. Gajadhar babu initiated a conversation about the household; he could see the way things were in the house. Very gingerly, he said that now that there was less money coming in, expenses would have to be curtailed.

“All the expenditure is necessary, where can I cut? I’ve grown old watching where every paisa is going. I’ve never been able to indulge myself by buying nice clothes or anything I wanted.”

Gajadhar babu looked at his wife, wounded. He was aware of his condition, his means. It was natural that his wife, feeling the pinch of their circumstances, would talk about it, but he was jolted by the complete absence of any sympathy. If she had asked for advice about the household, he wouldn’t have minded. But it was as if he was the one responsible for all the problems of the family.

“What do you lack, Amar’s mother? You have a daughter-in-law in the house, there are children; money is not the only thing that makes someone rich,” Gajadhar babu said and, indeed, he believed it. But his wife didn’t understand. “Yes, there’s so much happiness having a daughter-in-law in the house isn’t it? She’s gone to the kitchen to cook today, let’s see what happens.” Saying this, his wife closed her eyes and went to sleep. Gajadhar babu stared at her. Was this his wife, the memory of whose soft tender touch and smile had kept him going all his life? He felt as if that charming young girl had got lost in the journey of life and he was utterly unfamiliar with this woman who had taken her place. His wife’s heavy body, in deep slumber, seemed unsightly to him, her face rough and lustreless. Gajadhar babu looked at her for a long time, then lay down and began staring at the ceiling.

The sound of something falling woke his wife with a start, “Looks like the cat has knocked something over,” she said and went inside. When she returned, she looked sulky. “See, bahu left the kitchen open and the cat overturned the bowl of dal. Everyone is ready to eat, now what will I feed them?” She paused for breath and said, “She used up an entire tin of ghee just to make one vegetable dish and four parathas. No concern for the person earning money with such difficulty, here she is wasting things. I knew all this housework was beyond everyone.”

Gajadhar babu felt that if his wife said one more word, his ears would start to ring. Pressing his lips tightly together, he turned away, his back to his wife.

***

Basanti had deliberately cooked the dinner so indifferently that it was inedible. Gajadhar babu finished his meal silently but Narendra stood up and said, “I can’t eat this food.”

Basanti snapped back, “So don’t eat, no one is begging you to.”

“Who asked you to cook?” shouted Narendra.

“Babuji asked me.”

“This is what Babuji thinks up while sitting around.”

Ma asked Basanti to get up and cajoled Narendra into a better mood by cooking something for him and feeding him herself. Gajadhar babu said to his wife, “She’s a grown-up girl and she doesn’t know how to cook.”

Arre , she knows everything, she just doesn’t want to do anything,” answered his wife.

The next evening, Basanti peeped into the kitchen, then changed her clothes and came out.

Gajadhar babu asked her, “Where are you going?”

“Next door, to Sheela’s house,” said Basanti.

“No need, go inside and study,” said Gajadhar babu in a stern voice. After hovering indecisively for a bit, Basanti went inside. Gajadhar babu went for a walk every evening. When he returned, his wife said, “What did you say to Basanti? She’s been sitting with a long face since evening. She hasn’t eaten anything either.”

Also read: ‘Amasa’ by Devanuru Mahadeva

Gajadhar babu decided he would get Basanti married off soon. After that day, Basanti avoided her father. If she had to go out anywhere, she would use the back door. When Gajadhar babu questioned his wife about this a few times, he was told, “She’s sulking.” This made Gajadhar babu even angrier. Look at the attitude of the girl, just because he stopped her from going out, now she won’t speak to her father. Then his wife informed him that Amar was thinking of moving out.

“Why?” asked Gajadhar babu, astonished and confused. His wife didn’t give him any clear answer. Amar and his wife had a long list of complaints. According to them, Gajadhar babu was always lying around in the sitting room, and when they had visitors, there was nowhere for them to sit; he still thought of Amar as a little boy and with no thought of the occasion, would tick Amar off; Amar’s wife had to work and listen to her mother-in-law’s taunts about her slovenliness. “Was there any such talk before I arrived?” asked Gajadhar babu. His wife shook her head. Before, Amar had lived here as master of the house—there were no constraints on his wife, there were regular convivial gatherings of Amar’s friends and many rounds of tea and snacks would be ferried back and forth from the kitchen. Basanti too liked it this way.

Gajadhar babu said quietly, “Tell Amar there’s no need to make any hasty decisions.”

The next day when he returned from his walk, he found that his charpoy was no longer in the sitting room. He was about to ask what happened when his eyes fell on his wife who was in the kitchen. He opened his mouth to ask “Where is Bahu?”, then, as if remembering something, kept quiet. When he peeped into his wife’s little room, he found that his charpoy had been placed in the middle of all the pickle jars, quilts and assorted tins. Gajadhar bahu took off his coat and looked around for somewhere to hang it. Then he folded it and, moving some clothes aside, hung it on the rope strung across the room. Though he hadn’t eaten anything as he normally did in the evening, he went and lay down on his charpoy. All said and done, his body was old and ageing. He did walk a little every morning and evening, but by the time he returned, he was tired. Gajadhar babu remembered his large, airy quarters. His carefree life, the hustle and bustle of the station every morning when the passenger train came, the familiar faces of old friends and acquaintances, the khat-khat of the wheels on the tracks, which was nothing less than sweet music to his ears. That life now seemed like a lost treasure. He felt as if he had been cheated by life. He hadn’t even a tiny drop of what he had wanted from his life.

Lying down, he listened to the various sounds of the house. The inconsequential sparring between the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, the sound of water from an open tap falling into a bucket, the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen and, in the middle of it all, the twittering of two little birds—and suddenly he decided that henceforth he would not interfere with anything that happened in the house. If there was no other place for the man of the house except this charpoy, then he would lie here. If it was shifted somewhere else, he would go there. If there was no place for him in his children’s lives, he would live like a stranger in his own house…. After that day, truly, Gajadhar babu didn’t say a word. When Narendra came asking for money, he gave it without asking why. Basanti stayed in the neighbouring house till after dark, he didn’t say anything—but what hurt him the most was that his wife didn’t seem to care about this change. She was oblivious to what he was going through. In fact, she was pleased that her husband was no longer interfering in household matters. Sometimes she said, “It’s the right thing to do, you shouldn’t intervene, the children have grown up, we are just doing out duty. We are educating them, we’ll get them married.”

Gajadhar babu, cut to the quick, gave his wife a hurt look. He felt he was nothing but a source of money for his wife and children. His wife wore sindoor in her hair and had some prestige in society because of him, but she felt she had to put a plate of food before him twice a day and that was it, she was done with her duty. She was so engrossed in her sugar and ghee tins that they had become her entire world. Forget becoming the centre of her life, Gajadhar babu no longer had any enthusiasm for his marriage.

***

Despite all his promises, one day Gajadhar babu did end up interfering. His wife, as was her habit, was grumbling about the servant, “He’s such a shirker, he filches money every time you send him to the bazaar to buy something, and when he sits down to eat, he can’t stop eating.” Gajadhar babu had always felt that the lifestyle of the house far exceeded what they could afford. A servant was quite unnecessary. There were three men in the house, surely one or the other could do these little errands. That day itself, he paid off the servant and sacked him. When Amar came back from the office, he called out to the servant. His wife told him, “Babuji has sacked him.”

“Why?”

“He says it’s too much expense.”

Also read: ‘Thenvarikka’ by Narayan

This was a very simple, straightforward conversation, but Gajadhar babu was stung by his daughter-in-law’s tone. He didn’t go for his customary walk that day, his heart felt so heavy. In his listlessness, he didn’t even get up to switch on the light. Unaware of this, Narendra was telling his mother, “Amma, why don’t you talk to Babuji? Sitting around all day, now he’s got rid of the servant too. If Babuji thinks that I’m going to pile my bicycle with grain and take it to the flour mill to get it ground, I’m not.”

“Yes, Amma,” that was Basanti, “I’m supposed to go to college, then come back and sweep the house, I can’t do it.”

“He’s old,” Amar muttered. “He should just sit quietly. Why must he interfere in everything?” Then Gajadhar’s wife said sarcastically, “He even sent your wife to the kitchen to cook. She finished off fifteen days’ rations in five days.” Before the daughter-in-law could respond, she disappeared into the kitchen. After a while, when she came into her room and switched on the light, she saw Gajadhar babu lying there and was taken aback. She couldn’t make out his feelings from the expression on his face. He was lying down, silent, his eyes closed.

***

Letter in hand, Gajadhar babu went inside and called his wife. Without any preamble, Gajadhar babu said, “I’ve got a job in Ramjimal’s sugar mill. Instead of sitting around doing nothing, it’s better if I earn some money for the house. He had asked me earlier as well, but I’d refused.” He paused, as if a tiny ember still glimmered in a fire that had been put out, and said, his voice low, “I had thought that after being away from all of you for so many years, I would stay with my family when I finally got the time. Anyway, I have to leave the day after. Will you come with me?”

“Me?” said his wife, disconcerted. “If I go, what will happen here? This big household, and then there’s an adolescent girl who hasn’t yet reached maturity….”

Gajadhar bahu cut her short and said in a tired, defeated voice, “All right, stay here.”

And sank into a deep silence.

***

Narendra tied up his bedding with great speed and called a rickshaw. Gajadhar babu’s tin trunk and thin bedding were loaded on it. Holding a basket of laddoo s and mathri for his snack time, Gajadhar babu sat down in the rickshaw. He cast a glance at his family, then looked away and the rickshaw set off. After he left, everyone went back inside, and bahu said to Amar, “Take us to the cinema please?” Basanti jumped up and said, “Bhaiya, me too!”

Gajadhar babu’s wife went straight into the kitchen. She put the leftover mathri s into a container, took it to her room and placed it next to the various other tins, then came out and said, “ Arre , Narendra, take Babuji’s charpoy out of the room. There’s no place to even walk.”

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

Reproduc ed with permission of Aleph Book Company.

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