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November 2008
CINDERELLA

Manjul Bajaj
I was four years old then – a poor little rich girl. She was simply a poor girl – sixteen or maybe seventeen...

A little girl lived in a large white bungalow with emerald green lawns. She loved the house with its many trees, climbers, shrubs and its many singing birds, but very often she wished for a sister.

She would stand by the wall of her house and look across at a row of dilapidated quarters next door that housed many different families. Each family had a room some 10’ by 10’ by 10’ – with a small door and a hole in the wall that served as a window – and a makeshift kitchen outdoors. One family kept goats, another had a cow, a third hens, a fourth a rickshaw. Their children wore few clothes but played many games throughout the day. It was fun to watch them. Lajwanti, the part-time help who came to wash the dishes in the little girl’s house, also lived in those quarters. As did Kunti.

‘Psst Kunti how long will you be?’ the little girl sits down upon the boundary wall and waits for her friend. She and her mother recently discovered Kunti. They were walking down to check why Lajwanti was late for work when they noticed that a large stretch of the rear boundary wall was adorned with the most peculiar and fascinating charcoal drawings – of fishes and cows and goats and trees. Of horses running and bamboos rustling in the breeze. The strange drawings jumped out of the wall at them. ‘Oh Kunti does them – the silly, sad child, alone since her mother’s death,’ Lajwanti had said.

Kunti was summoned. To the mother she looked wise and quiet beyond her years. Kunti smiled and the little girl was reminded of a mustard field she had seen when they had driven out of the city one day – bright and stretching as far as the eye could see.

‘Won’t you be friends with me Kunti?’ she asked impulsively.

‘Come and teach bitiya drawing,’ the mother requested.

Now no day is complete for her without a drawing lesson from Kunti.

‘Psst Kunti how long will you be?’ she asks again.

Kunti puts the dal she has cooked in a metal pot, covers it with a lid and stores it folded in the ashes underneath her makeshift brick fireplace, to keep it warm. Then she pulls out a stick, some one foot high, and measures the stack of chapattis she has just finished preparing – they are too many to count. That done she blows out the fire, bends her head down and inhales deeply of its woody smoke, wraps the rotis in a piece of old blanket and hides them under the fireplace.

‘I’m almost done,’ she shouts up to the little girl atop the boundary wall and picks up an earthen pot and walks toward the hand-pump down the lane. The water filled, her work for the evening is over and she is ready to go.

Ek, Do, Teen will know where to find their meal.

‘A drunkard and his three thieving sons’ — that is how their neighbours speak of Kunti’s family. Her half-brothers are in their twenties. Their elbows and knees dangle awkwardly, their shirts are buttoned the wrong way, their shorts torn and dirty, their hair cut unevenly as if with a kitchen knife. They wander around the streets all day, their legs and minds not quite in tandem. The children sometimes poke them with sticks and they, in turn, pick up stones and pelt them back in self-defence. But they are not thieves, they simply take what they find: an odd job here, some old clothes there, a piece of wood to cut and sell, something, anything.

• • •

‘Is it true Kunti that your brothers have no names?’

Kunti looks up reflectively from a half-done sketch of Ramu, the elephant with a wriggly tail, then back at the little girl.

‘Yes,’ she says after the slightest of pauses, ‘I believe their mother was so depressed at the quick succession in which they came, that she had no mind left to name them with. Ek, do, teen – one, two, three she would count continuously to herself in a whisper, trying to come to terms with the magnitude of her misfortune. Ek-do-teen is what they came to be called.’

The smile vanishes from her eyes, replaced by swirls of smoke. The little girl wants the old smiling Kunti back, but this one continues speaking.

‘She died after the third one was born – my father beat her to death. The very next week he drove in with my mother in tow.’ Suddenly, she hugs the sketching book on her knees to her chest, and is smiling again. ‘Shhsh, your mother will not like it that we speak of such things. Look at Ramu, how silly he looks without his trunk – like a pig.’

The two girls giggle. Kunti’s deft fingers give Ramu a trunk and big, floppy ears so real that when she sleeps the little girl will see them flapping in her dreams.

• • •

Kunti’s evening visits to the big house become a daily fixture. Mostly the girls draw, but sometimes they play badminton in the courtyard. At other times in a reversal of roles the little girl brings out her storybooks and translates the stories into Hindi for Kunti. The first time the little girl’s mother found her pointing out the pictures in her Giant Fairytale Book and solemnly telling aloud the story Ek Thi Cinderella to Kunti, she had not known whether to laugh or cry. Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, now Kunti knows all of these stories. They provide material for the sketching books.

The mother drops by to check up on the girls now and then. She brings in hot samosas or lemonade or icecreams as a treat. She marvels at their friendship. How different the two girls are – her own freckled, auburn-topped ruffian romping around in a thin white cotton chemise and the strange, quiet, dignified older girl from across the boundary wall, in her clean but worn out salwar kameez.

In the beginning she tried to compensate Kunti – awkwardly shoving a few rupees in her hands as she left, or trying to present her with an old outfit of her own, but the girl would refuse. ‘No thank you, ma’am, I don’t need it. My other brother has a good job in Aurangabad – he sends me money regularly,’ she said.

Kunti did not need payment to come to the big house. Being there was payment enough. Sometimes she would look up from her drawing and marvel at the high ceiling, the long expanse of limewashed walls with ventilators at three-quarters height to bring in light and air, and gently whirring fan at the top. Or on impulse she would lay her cheek on the cool, red sandstone floor burnished smooth as a ruby, and just inhale deeply, shutting her eyes to memorize the sensation. Or she would turn on and off the tap in the courtyard, laughing with perfect glee at the magic of water flowing at the bidding of her fingers.

• • •

‘Kunti is it true you never sleep indoors?’

Lajwanti had reported this peculiarity. ‘She is claustrophobic, that girl. No matter what the weather she simply won’t go inside. She sleeps on her mattress outside the hut.’

‘No, little one, when my mother left she instructed the stars to watch over me.’

The little girl is quiet, for she has been forbidden to speak of Kunti’s mother. Three years ago thanks to Kunti’s mother the quarters were allotted a hand-pump under a government scheme, to meet their drinking water needs. On a cemented surface at the end of the lane was an iron shaft with a handle – you put all your weight on the handle and cranked it a few times and it spluttered and splashed and the water gurgled out of a spout on the shaft and the women filled it and carried it home. Previously the women had walked half a kilometre with their earthen pots to an open well, their children and stray dogs trailing behind them to fetch water every day. But after the gypsy woman whom everyone called the trucker’s second wife chose the well for her grave, it was hastily abandoned and the hand-pump arranged.

Children were forbidden to go near the well. If they did, they returned screaming. Stories abounded of a woman with a maroon bindi the size of a four anna coin, who laughed out from the well’s face while simultaneously weeping.

The question jumps and skips inside the little girl. Her belly hurts with the effort of trying to contain it and then all of a sudden it shoots out of her mouth – ‘What was your mother like Kunti?’

The girl learns that Kunti’s mother was a tall, handsome, gypsy woman who wore bright twirling skirts in black fabric with tiny maroon flowers printed upon it and silver earrings and a bindi the size of a small coin. She was sixteen when she ran away with the trucker, beguiled by his stories of life in a city. She had not known that her first task when she arrived in her new home would be to feed her predecessor’s three sons, hungry for almost a week by then; or that the mud walls of the room she was to call home would need to be scrubbed clean of the stains of her predecessor’s blood. In fact she had not even known of the existence of a predecessor. But she belonged to a tribe of fierce cattle nomads and when a girl from her tribe ran away with a common trucker, she knew there wasn’t a road left that went back home.

‘Arre baba, crazy, careless woman with her wandering gypsy soul – abandoning her children like that. So thoughtless and selfish!’ Lajwanti said. But Kunti told her friend the real story one day.

Kunti’s mother had called her son and daughter to her side a few days before she died. ‘I am using up all my magic simply to live, soon there will be nothing left to rescue you with,’ she said. Her gaze panned over their one room house taking in Ek-do-teen sleeping in a heap of elbows and knees on the floor and her old trunk in the corner from which she sold various potions and charmed amulets to the neighbours in exchange for food and coins.

She gave detailed instructions, first to Kunti’s brother. ‘Your father will be driving past my old village tonight. Hide in the rear, behind the sacks of cement and in the early hours of the morning, look out for a signboard, which reads Baap. Right after there is an intersection, where the truck will stop. Jump off and hide. After he drives off, head left to a village called Lathi. Give this note to Karni Singh, the teashop owner. He will help, you will be fine.’

Once he had got a job he was to come back and take his sister away. ‘Remember Kunti, you must always remain ready to leave at a moment’s notice and meanwhile,’ she had thrust a bit of charcoal into Kunti’s right hand, ‘don’t forget that there is magic at the tip of your fingers which can carry you beyond this grimness, till he comes for you.’

Kunti knew her mother’s meaning – together they had forced the pungency out of many a cruel day with their etching. The walls of their hut were covered with forests and waterfalls, gods and goddesses, bullock carts and fields, but her mother applied a fresh coat of lime-wash to the walls, obliterating all their artwork before leaving. She knew Kunti would need a fresh canvas on which to work out her grief.

This was the real story, and part of the magic had worked. The note to Karni Singh, the teashop owner, passed from hand to hand and stopped only when the boy landed a good job in Aurangabad, as a civil supervisor with a construction firm.

‘Didn’t he come back for you?’

‘He did. I couldn’t go.’ Her eyes like an empty, colourless sky on a listless evening.

Lajwanti supplied the details of that particular story.

Kunti was cooking the evening meal when her brother came. ‘I’ll just finish this,’ she said to him. The boy waited, chatting with the neighbours. The food ready, she went off to fetch water. That done she gathered a few clothes and a comb, and dallied hoping her half-brothers would return so she could leave some last minute instructions.

When they returned and found Kunti leaving, they circled her and there was the sound of a deep wailing as Ek-do-teen began to lament her impending departure. Like the sound of dogs baying and howling on a full moon night, Lajwanti said. Kunti was torn and confused. Just then the father arrived. Bitter words were exchanged and the young lad and his father had a fistfight while Kunti held her head in her hands and would not look up. The boy left, angry with his sister for disobeying their mother.

Since then he had sent money every month but she did not know when or if he would come for her again, and whether she would go.

It was strange that Kunti’s life was made up of many sad stories but she always had that smile that reminded the little girl of large expanses of mustard fields dancing in the breeze.

• • •

‘Kunti, Kunti….’ The little girl hurtles out of the gate and towards the quarters, so excited she cannot wait.

‘Ma says you can come to my birthday party, though I am not to ask you for a present,’ she is breathless as at last she finds Kunti sweeping inside her quarter.

Kunti who knows everything doesn’t really know what a birthday party is. No child in the quarters has ever had one. The girl cannot hold her excitement as she tells Kunti of invitations and decorations and balloons and streamers and gifts and return gifts.

‘I’ll do the decorations,’ Kunti says to her that evening, ‘that shall be my present to you.’

They decide on a Cinderella theme. The girl’s mother falls in with their plans and fetches huge white card-sheets for making cut-outs, kite paper in purple and yellow and pink and red for the dresses, poster colours and brushes for them to paint with, glue and buttons and ribbons and scissors and many other things beside.

The girl has never been happier. The hours are horses with wings, galloping and flying away at full sprint, making her giddy. Kunti’s hands fashion the coloured paper into dresses more splendid than those in the Giant Fairytale Book even, her deft fingers etch faces — faces that are strangely real. The fairy godmother wears a cape of black and maroon and a swirling long skirt and the stepsisters look dim-witted, to the girl’s eyes. Together they cut and paint in the arms and legs, the pumpkin and the mice.

‘Gosh Kunti, the prince looks like Lallan with that handle-bar moustache!’ the little girl peals out. Lallan the rickshaw puller lives two houses down from Kunti. Sometimes, when their car breaks down, the little girl’s mother sends him to fetch her from school on his rickshaw. The little girl likes Lallan – tall and bare-chested, with rippling muscles and a terrific moustache, he whistles insouciantly and his black eyes twinkle as he pulls the rickshaw. To her he looks like a comic book hero, but Lajwanti says he is a namby and completely under his old mother’s thumb. On Sundays his mother seats him in front of her and oils his hair as if he were a schoolboy and not a grown man, yes right outside on her string cot, for all the world to see.

Kunti’s face turns a bright pink, as bright as the stole they have made for Cinderella to wear at the ball when she meets the prince. She crushes the cut-out and puts it in the dustbin.

‘Why did you do that?’ wails the little girl.

‘We’ll do another. Princes are clean-shaven – see in your book.’ Kunti laughs and diverts her attention.

Next they make a shoe for Cinderella, with silver tassels adorning it. The idea of the shoe enchants Kunti. It delights her to think of a shoe that fits only Cinderella and no one else.

The party is held on the front lawn – the little girl has invited half the neighbourhood and her entire class from school as well. It goes off splendidly, but that night it rains. The cutouts are soaked – Cinderella, her Prince, fairy godmother and all. The paper dresses are ruined. When the little girl wakes up in the morning her mother is scared she will cry but she laughs instead. The figures and dresses are festooned permanently in a sunny space inside of her, safe from all harm.

• • •

Things suddenly go wrong after the birthday party. The two girls are trying to put the birthday photographs in sequence for inserting in the album when Lajwanti rushes in, flushed with news. Lallan’s mother has announced that her arthritic fingers are too old to put oil in his unruly hair and has fixed a bride for him. Photos spill out of Kunti’s lap and onto the floor, fluttering and flying in the gust of the fan. The two girls scurry to gather them together. They do not learn who Lallan is to wed.

The first change the little girl notices is in Kunti’s smile. She still smiles a lot, but gone is the limitless expanse of the mustard fields. Her smile is more tentative now, uncertain, struggling to establish its place. There are other changes too. Although it is she who has just had a birthday, it is Kunti who has grown older – suddenly a woman to her child. In a hundred different ways she tries to get the old Kunti back but each time she gets only that heartbreaking smile, unsure of its hold like the first crop of green grass after the rains.

‘She is a bad girl,’ she hears Lajwanti telling her mother.

‘No Lajwanti she is a good girl. Her circumstances are bad,’ her mother replies firmly.

Why are they talking like this? The conversation veers to how vulnerable Kunti is, how she has no one to protect her. The girl can bear it no longer and rushes in: ‘Ma, the stars protect Kunti, she has told me!’

‘Some nights are cloudy and have no stars in them,’ the mother replies smiling sadly.

• • •

‘Kunti what do you do on nights without stars?’ the girl asks her the next day.

In the monsoons, when it rains ceaselessly and the night is full of storms, where does she go then? By the old abandoned well, there is a gnarled, fruitless, old mango tree. She sleeps under it.

‘On nights without stars, little one, my mother keeps watch.’

‘Five months gone, five months gone, the stupid girl,’ Lajwanti keeps muttering.

‘Is there no way that we can help Lajwanti?’ the girl’s mother asks. ‘You said there is a brother didn’t you?’

‘Yes, but under the circumstances, God knows if he will come.’

‘Call your brother Kunti,’ the mother takes Kunti aside one day and tells her.

‘I cannot ruin his life with my shame,’ she replies.

The girl does not know what they are discussing all the time. Her friend Nina at school tells her that whenever adults talk in hushed voices and shut up as you enter the room, they are talking about sex. But sex is the icky thing God makes Mamas and Papas do to make babies. What does it have to do with her Kunti?

‘Kunti must be making a baby,’ Nina tells her.

She decides never to talk to Nina again. She is dirty.

But there is a little bump on Kunti’s tummy and between them there is the distance of a few centuries, across which Kunti smiles her uncertain smile, emerald green against a rained out mud brown landscape. And all the funny animals and fairytale creatures are one by one walking off her canvas. Soon there will only be the old well left, with a gypsy woman crying and laughing out of it.

The girl’s mother has got a new mission in life suddenly. Kunti needs rescuing. She instructs Ramdin, the postman, to get Kunti’s next money order from Aurangabad to her, before he makes it over to Kunti. When he gets it she copies down the sender’s name and address given at the bottom, very, very carefully. Then she sits for long hours composing a six-line letter to Kunti’s fourth brother, which she finally walks to the mailbox to drop off personally.

• • •

This time when Kunti’s brother comes for her she gets up from the fire without even blowing it out. The half-brothers are home but they do not cry. Even they know she is in disgrace. Kunti sticks in her belly and sticks out her chin and walks out with sure strides beside her brother, looking neither right nor left, nor back, simply straight ahead.

She stops a brief second to wave and smile, a mustard fields smile, at a little girl sitting atop a boundary wall watching for her.

This is the last the little girl ever sees of Kunti, unless you count the photograph. Some months later a photograph arrives in the mail addressed to her mother. In it there is Kunti dressed formally in a sari, standing beside a quiet looking man of about thirty. By her side are two little girls in pigtails, roughly three and five years of age, and in her arms a newborn baby.

Looking at Kunti’s eyes, the little girl hears the same laugh of delight that she would hear when they reached the part in the story when it turned out that the lost shoe fit Cinderella’s foot.

Lajwanti fills them in with the details. Kunti married well. Her brother introduced in Aurangabad her as his tragically widowed sister. His boss, who had just lost his wife to typhoid, felt a spark of empathy and a dash of hope that his daughters might not live motherless after all. He had proposed, she had accepted. And in all probability they lived happily ever after.

It was only many, many years later that I figured out that in a strange sort of way Kunti had lived out our favourite fairy tale. By the side of an old deserted well, under the gaze of her mother turned fairy, Lallan had taken out his wand and Kunti’s belly had become a pumpkin. My mother, stepping in for the fairy godmother, had turned the pumpkin into a chariot, which took Kunti away from her cruel father and her half-brothers into the arms of a kind, if not handsome, prince awaiting her. And his two-bedroom house, with its indoor plumbing and attached kitchen, its clean floors and limewashed walls and its gently whirring fans, was the very palace of Kunti’s dreams.




© Manjul Bajaj 2007
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