Chotelal’s wife had a maternal uncle in Delhi whose daughter had been married into a family in Meerut. When this woman’s daughter was nine, she was married to the only son of Shivlal Baniya, a merchant from Koyal.
One day, the boy was flying his kite on the rooftop and playing a game of kite- fighting with others when, his eyes fixed on the sky, he stepped forward and fell from the three-story house onto a stone. There was a loud thud. His bones were crushed and he suffered a deep wound to his head. He lived for two days and died on the third.
So the Delhi woman’s daughter became a widow at the age of ten. Her name was Kirpi. She was a very sweet and simple girl who always kept her gaze lowered. She had learned the Vishnusahasranama, the One Thousand Names of Vishnu, from her maternal aunt Anandi, and recited it daily. She used to write and chant the name of Rama and listen to religious sermons and stories. In the months of Kartik and Magh, she observed the bathing rituals and the month- long chandrayan fast. Her mother made her celebrate the marriage of Tulsi and Vishnu and had her conclude the fast with an udyapan ceremony on the auspicious day of Anant Chaturdasi. She had also gone on pilgrimage to Jagannath Puri and Badrinath.
Sometimes the girl, accompanied by her mother, came to visit her aunt. Seeing her, Anandi was heartbroken.
“Look at her,’ she would say to her cousin. ‘What has this poor girl seen of the world? How will she understand that she, too, was born into this world to share its pleasures? Who knows what’s going on in someone else’s mind? What must she be thinking? Her friends all eat well and dress well; they laugh, chitchat and amuse themselves singing and playing musical instruments. Wouldn’t she want the same for herself? Her only crime is that she’s been led around the sacred fire seven times. This is the bane of our community. Muslims and the English Sahibs marry a second time, and nowadays this happens even among Bengalis. There’s no prohibition against widow remarriage among the Jat, Gujar, Nai, Dhobi, Kahar, Ahir and many other communities. Moreover, even in the Dharmashastras, it is written that if a woman’s marriage hasn’t been consummated and her husband dies, remarriage is permitted – so there’s no sin in arranging a second marriage for such a woman.”
Having listened to this, the cousin replied, “But what are we to do, sister? We can’t defy custom.”
During the dark half of Ashwin, when the ancestors are worshipped, Daulat Ram’s daughter, Muliya, drew sanjhi designs with cow dung on the front wall of the house. Diyas were lit at dusk and the girls from the neighbourhood gathered and sang this song:
O Sanjhi, what will you put on, what will you wear, how will you braid your hair?
I’ll put on a shawl, I’ll wear a silken cloth, and with gold I’ll braid my hair.
When the girls were done singing, they were given some fresh cowpeas as a reward.
Sometimes Nanhe and Mohan went with the girls and joined in the song. “What’s this, my dears?” their mother would chide them. “Boys don’t sing girls’ songs.”
One day the elder brother came back home, while the younger one stayed behind with the girls. Overcome by sleep, he dozed off right there. When the girls had finished their song and left, Mohan still hadn’t returned. So his mother went looking for him. She found him asleep on the ground. She picked him up and carried him back. When she reached home she noticed that the bangle on one of his wrists was missing and that a lock of hair from his choti had been snipped off. She immediately told her mother-in-law. Curses and maledictions were heaped upon the unknown culprit. God knows who’d taken the bangle and done this to him – after all, there had been many older girls from outside the muhalla as well.
But ultimately suspicion fell on Daulat Ram’s wife. And there’s no doubt that she was indeed a wicked woman. Sometimes, when the boys were playing with the girl, they would enter her house calling out “Tai, tai”. She would not say a word, but her brow would furrow into three lines. Now, how can you feel hostile toward children? They are God’s creatures; everyone should speak to them nicely.
When little Muliya came to see her grandmother, her aunt Anandi would sometimes call for her and, with great affection, make the girl sit down beside her. Whatever food she had prepared for the boys she always gave to the girl first. She loved her as much as she loved her own sons. She made dolls for Muliya with her own hands. She got her a colourful spinning wheel and taught her needlework along with the other girls. She also taught her a few characters of the alphabet, one or two at a time.
Every day, the boys and the girl received a little money from the shop. Daulat Ram’s wife had set aside an earthen vessel as a cash box in which Kanhaiya and Muliya’s money was deposited. When the vessel was smashed after a year, eleven rupees, six annas and six pies came out of it, from which she had an anklet made for Muliya. Gyano was very shrewd in these matters. She saved up another hundred rupees in the same way, which she lent out at interest.
Chotelal’s wife had not saved a single paisa. Everything her boys brought home was spent. It was only when it came to collecting and saving money, therefore, that Daulat Ram’s wife was worthy of praise.
One evening, Mohan stepped out of the house while absorbed in play. It was during Diwali. A gambler (who looked like a decent man) approached the boy and quickly lifted him up in his arms, saying, “Your grandfather’s calling you to give you some sugar candy toys. And there’s going to be a big spectacle in the market today.”
Mohan was only a child, so he said: “I’ll ask my mother and come.”
“I’ve already asked your mother. I’ll take you back home after the show.”
Then, muttering “it’s cold, so cold”, the gambler concealed the boy under his shawl and carried him away to the jungle.
Excerpted with permission from Devrani Jethani Ki Kahani or A Tale of Two Sisters-in-Law, Gauri Datt, translated from the Hindi by Smita Gandotra and Ulrike Stark, Primus Books.